Ask any traveler what they enjoy about setting out from home for new destinations, and they’re likely to say something about what a freeing experience it is. Whether we call it broadening our horizons, getting out of our comfort zones, escaping the norm, or exploring new perspectives, it’s all the same. Fundamentally, we’re speaking of a deliberate choice to expose ourselves to the world — with the assumption that we can return from it. We have agency in these situations, which makes travel so refreshing and life-affirming. It reminds us that we are in control of our own narratives. That, and travel itself, are an immense privilege.
After all, much of what allows us to grow when we travel is not the comforts, but the adversity that we face in the form of language barriers, culture shock, and unfamiliar territory. We choose to put ourselves in situations where we lack total control in order to feel more in control once we’ve reoriented ourselves, and gotten to the positives.
In honor of World Refugee Day, remember that for millions of people worldwide, going home is not an option. We think of traveling as spreading our wings, but before we ever take this step, we must appreciate the forces that enable us to feel safe and valued away from home. The freedom that we associate with traveling is unique, but there is no reason that the worldview our travels promote should be limited to adventures and stories. Individuals undertake journeys, but travel is not about individuals: travel is about seeing the world as a holistic and closely knit community that is greater than the sum of its parts because it protects those parts.
Think of all of the times you’ve traveled, and the hospitality people have paid you for no reason other than that they felt a kindred responsibility to do so. Why should we not feel even more of a responsibility to provide for people who arrive in our communities against their will, without the option of returning home? For refugees, the adversity and uncertainty of travel that we appreciate for its ability to mold us in doses and on our terms are never-ending, and compounded by the fact that people treat them as “others” who are responsible for their circumstances. It is an immense privilege to experience growth and positive personal change through wandering. But to associate those processes only with grand tours of foreign countries is to overlook that privilege, one that is denied to so many people.
This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t travel, or that we should feel guilty for exercising our freedom to do so. We simply ought to be more conscious that with these freedoms comes a responsibility to use them deliberately in all walks of life — not selectively, and not selfishly. Freedom to enjoy personal security in the world and the hospitality of foreign strangers is something we can repay in turn unto others, whether they are in our neighborhoods or thousands of miles away. Moreover, we should be mindful and appreciative of our comforts at home when we are there, not just when traveling.
Finally, we should travel for more than that feeling of escape and look beyond what a place is able to offer us. We must be ready to embrace the struggles of the places we visit, and plan our journeys on the basis of what we can offer there, without expecting anything in return.
Both governmental and non-governmental organizations across the world are redoubling their efforts to cope with the ongoing refugee crisis, and they need your help. If you have language skills, search for opportunities in a city near you to work as an interpreter — in the United States, The Young Center is always in need of volunteer communicators at its various locations. Organizations such as the Refugee Empowerment Program also have opportunities for individuals to gain ESL (English as a second language) teaching experience.
In general, additional helping hands and resources, in the form of labor or donations, will aid these groups in their mission to improve the quality of life for displaced people. It is only by working together that we can create a supportive environment for all members of our global community.
Header image by Eddie Stigson