4 Refugees Whose Life Stories You Should Know About Before You Sit Down For Thanksgiving

As Americans sit down for Thanksgiving dinner Thursday, surrounded by family and friends, they'll probably take a moment to give thanks for everything they have in their lives. More often than not, it's nothing more than a symbolic gesture born out of tradition, rather than a genuine assessment of what they're truly thankful for. A house, a job, a country where we can roam free without fear of being persecuted by your own government — these are things we routinely take for granted. But there are millions of people around the world who don't have these simple luxuries. This Thanksgiving falls during the worst refugee crisis since WWII. Instead of giving thanks for the same banalities this year, take a glimpse into these refugees' lives, and understand what being thankful really means.

Right now, as I type this and as families finalize their turkey orders and Thanksgiving menus, hundreds of thousands of refugees are crossing treacherous waters hungry and exhausted to reach better, safer lives. Many of these families won't make it. The ones who do are sometimes separated when they arrive at their destinations, which are often makeshift shelters that offer safety but not normalcy; they feel like displacement more than home. This is a generalized version of a typical refugee's experience. The crisis becomes even more harrowing when you zoom in on individuals.

In case you have relatives who disagree with the idea of accepting refugees into the U.S., here are four incredible stories that might change their mind.

Ahmed Survived, But Barely Has Any Reason To Live


On the UNHCR's Refugee Stories page is the tragic story of Ahmed, a Syrian refugee in his late 60s, who survived his journey from Libya to Malta, but lost eight family members along the way. In October 2013, after he and his family made it to Libya from Syria, they were held captive by a gang of Somalis, Libyans, and Tunisians, who raped the women and tortured the men. The price the captors charged for the journey was too high for most of the refugees, but Ahmed and his family were able to pay their way onto the boat.

However, when the boat finally set sail, a ship of Libyan militiamen tried to force it back to shore. They started shooting at it, and ultimately sank it. More than 30 people died in the accident. Somehow, Ahmed survived, and he eventually made his way to the Hal Far refugee camp in Malta. But he was no longer the same man.

Two Brothers Who Gave Up A Cushy Life For A More Free One


Majd Haaj and Walid Hassan are proof that having material possessions does not make one rich. The two brothers are educated, and come from a wealthy family in Syria. There, they had "six houses, two cars, 1,000 hectares of land with olive trees." But they yearned for something invaluable — safety and freedom — and they sold all of their houses, cars, and land in order to obtain it.

Majd told The Guardian what specifically prompted them to flee: a fight between the al-Nusra Front and ISIS which destroyed two houses in their town, and a drawing that their six-year-old niece made which illustrated the quality of their life in Syria.

I told her she should practice holding pens, because she couldn’t go to school, and she painted a soldier, a tank, and a bomb. That made my brother and I very sad; we didn’t want her to live in this awful world.

During their journey, they've been beaten, turned away, and kept in squalid conditions, but Majd expected as much. When the war in Syria first broke out, he volunteered with the Red Cross to keep refugees within Syria safe from the violence. Even knowing the difficulty that laid ahead, he was undaunted in his mission.

I want to be a professor, I want to come back to my country and teach people, and I want to be a reformer, help people to be educated.

Noor Was Just A Typical College Student Until The Civil War Started


Earlier this month, Refinery29 published an in-depth profile of three female Syrian refugees, who each offered a different perspective on the crisis, but all reflected the same hope that most refugees feel. One of the profiles tells the story of Noor, a young college student whose life resembled any typical American student's until the circumstances of her life took her into experiences the typical American can hardly imagine.

When Refinery29 spoke to her, she had just turned 27 and had been living in Turkey for two years after fleeing her home in Aleppo, Syria. Just a few years ago, however, she was a young college student witnessing a major shift in the world around her. The events of the Arab Spring galvanized her and her classmates to protest President Bashar al-Assad's regime. She described the feeling to Refinery29:

It was the first time in my life I felt I could say anything I wanted. As girls, we felt so good. In our culture, girls aren’t to raise their voices. In the protests, we were shouting.

After Assad's military forces started shutting down demonstrations, Noor and her classmates started to help children affected by the violence by putting on art exhibitions and organizing other activities. This is when her life took a drastic turn. In September 2013, Assad's soldiers raided her home and arrested her for her activism. Noor would spend the next 50 days in a 10x11 foot jail cell, where she was constantly interrogated.

So many times I wished I were dead, only so I don’t have to be there. The only thing that kept me alive is the wish that my mom could see me again.

Eventually, she was released, and that's when she knew she would have to leave her home forever. She and her brother fled to Gaziantep, Turkey, where she now works with an international aid organization helping those who are still stuck in Syria.

I want to be able to work for Syria, no matter what the job is, as long as it has to do with the Syrian people inside.

Sometimes, The Struggle Doesn't End When You Reach Your Destination


For Aziz (his name has been changed for safety reasons), another refugee highlighted by the UNHCR, the struggle with finding a home has almost been lifelong. He was only 10 when he witnessed his father being killed in his home country of Afghanistan. Barely able to comprehend what was happening, Aziz, his mother, brother, and sister began their life on the run.

The day we left, we cried and cried but we couldn’t stay in Afghanistan any more. At the time, I thought we would return back one day. I didn’t expect my life would take that turn.

After spending three years in Iran, where he and his family experienced intense racism, Aziz's brother decided to send him to a European country, where life might be more promising. During the lonely journey, Aziz lost his most prized possession in the world: his father's ring, "which was the only thing I had to remind me of him." Things didn't get better when he reached Greece.Aziz arrived in Athens in 2008 and applied for asylum right away. Now, seven years later, he still has not heard any response. Seven years after arriving in his new European home, Aziz still has no papers, no job, and no home. And that's not all. Last May, when Aziz returned to Athens after another failed attempt to reach Italy, he was jumped by five men, who beat him badly and left him to die. Fortunately, he was taken to the hospital and has healed, but his spirit is broken.

I can’t stay here anymore. I want to go somewhere where there are laws. If they killed me that night, nobody would do a thing.