Can the Powerful Listen? Reflections on World Refugee Day

by Megan Heise


Darlyn Cristabel Cordova-Valle. Jakelin Caal Maquín. Felipe Gomez Alonzo. Juan de León Gutiérrez. Wilmer Josué Ramírez Vásquez. Carlos Hernandez Vásquez.

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We honor these names, of the six children and youth who have died in U.S. custody at the border with Mexico in the last nine months, with deep sorrow and rage. No moment of silence will be long enough to hold their deaths, and no wail loud enough to make up for all of the things they would have said and done had their lives not been cut short through the cruelty of the current U.S. asylum-seeking process.

We hold these names, too, alongside that of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old boy who died attempting to cross the Mediterranean with his family in 2015, and the countless others who have died in this treacherous crossing since, including many this past week alone. While the human smugglers responsible for Alan’s passage to Turkey have since been convicted of human trafficking, there has been absolutely no accountability for the predominantly European and North American governments whose caps on refugee resettlement, long application delays, and appalling camp conditions have forced such desperate and dangerous crossings.

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Alan’s voice should have been heard. Carlos’s voice should have been heard. Wilmer’s voice should have been heard. Juan’s voice should have been heard. Felipe’s voice should have been heard. Jakelin’s voice should have been heard. Darlyn’s voice should have been heard.

There is nothing any of us can do to bring back the thousands of children and teens who have died attempting to seek refuge in countries that continue to act with impunity due to their status as global powers. We can, however, turn our ears and eyes to those who have survived, to those who are currently fighting to survive, and to those who dare attempt to thrive when even safe passage cannot be guaranteed.

On this World Refugee Day 2019, we reaffirm our commitment to elevating the voices of displaced youth, whether or not international law places upon them the label of “refugee.” We reaffirm our commitment to working with youth in refugee camps in Europe while also expanding our scope to include youth in shelters at the U.S.-Mexico border. While we are adamant in reminding the public that there is no singular “immigrant experience” — that each youth has their own individual story to tell and share when and how and if they wish — we also do not see these crises as wholly separate. The caging of children in Texas is, at its root, deeply related to the notoriously inhumane living conditions in European refugee camps, from Calais to Moria and beyond.

What we see across the world, in all of these atrocities, is a failure to uphold basic human rights and acknowledge the humanity and inherent human dignity of all people, and especially those who have been forcibly displaced, forced to seek asylum, forced to seek refuge far from their homelands.

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While there is so much more we could say, we ultimately believe that what we truly need to hear more of are the voices of displaced youth themselves. We are tired of the white savior narratives emerging from the refugee crisis. We are sick of seeing such a massive imbalance between the global platform granted to well-meaning non-immigrants talking about the refugee crisis, and the lack of regard for the voices, stories, experiences, and ideas of refugees and forcibly displaced people themselves.

We are here to help shift the narrative from being about refugees and asylum seekers, to being told by refugees and asylum seekers. We are here to turn over the microphone to displaced youth and to help build, promote, and sustain a platform upon which they can tell stories that need to be told. We are here to elevate voices that yearn to be heard and that need to be heard and shared globally if we ever hope to stop this crisis. We are here to mourn the dead, celebrate the living, and change our world, not just for, but with refugee and displaced youth.

Those in and with power have had their chance to speak; now, it's time to listen.


Megan has known Youth UnMuted co-founders since before the organization’s founding as a volunteer in our original Youth Engagement Space in Ritsona Refugee Camp. Megan is a writer, teacher, and consultant striving to make the world a better place via the written word. She is a current PhD candidate in English Composition and Applied Linguistics at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and has facilitated writing workshops in community settings, from refugee camps in Greece to community colleges in Colorado to a local library in her small hometown in Western Pennsylvania. She also coaches graduate school applicants on their admissions essays, volunteers as a communications consultant for Youth UnMuted, and curates the online lit zine “Reject Press.” You can learn more about her teaching, writing, and consulting specialties and interests and contact her at