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  • I remember when I first found out

  • I was going to speak at a TED conference.

  • I ran across the hall to one of my classrooms

  • to inform my students.

  • "Guess what, guys?

  • I've been asked to give a TED Talk."

  • The reaction wasn't one I quite expected.

  • The whole room went silent.

  • "A TED Talk? You mean, like the one you made us watch on grit?

  • Or the one with the scientist that did this really awesome thing with robots?"

  • Muhammad asked.

  • "Yes, just like that."

  • "But Coach, those people are really important and smart."

  • (Laughter)

  • "I know that."

  • "But Coach, why are you speaking? You hate public speaking."

  • "I do," I admitted,

  • "But it's important that I speak about us, that I speak about your journeys,

  • about my journey.

  • People need to know."

  • The students at the all-refugee school that I founded

  • decided to end with some words of encouragement.

  • "Cool! It better be good, Coach."

  • (Laughter)

  • There are 65.3 million people who have been forcibly displaced

  • from their homes because of war or persecution.

  • The largest number, 11 million, are from Syria.

  • 33,952 people flee their homes daily.

  • The vast majority remain in refugee camps,

  • whose conditions cannot be defined as humane under anyone's definition.

  • We are participating in the degradation of humans.

  • Never have we had numbers this high.

  • This is the highest number of refugees since World War II.

  • Now, let me tell you why this issue is so important to me.

  • I am an Arab. I am an immigrant.

  • I am a Muslim.

  • I've also spent the last 12 years of my life working with refugees.

  • Oh -- and I'm also gay.

  • It makes me really popular these days.

  • (Laughter)

  • But I am the daughter of a refugee.

  • My grandmother fled Syria in 1964 during the first Assad regime.

  • She was three months pregnant when she packed up a suitcase,

  • piled in her five children and drove to neighboring Jordan,

  • not knowing what the future held for her and her family.

  • My grandfather decided to stay, not believing it was that bad.

  • He followed her a month later, after his brothers were tortured

  • and his factory was taken over by the government.

  • They rebuilt their lives starting from scratch

  • and eventually became independently wealthy Jordanian citizens.

  • I was born in Jordan 11 years later.

  • It was really important to my grandmother for us to know our history

  • and our journey.

  • I was eight years old when she took me to visit my first refugee camp.

  • I didn't understand why.

  • I didn't know why it was so important to her

  • for us to go.

  • I remember walking into the camp holding her hand,

  • and her saying, "Go play with the kids,"

  • while she visited with the women in the camp.

  • I didn't want to.

  • These kids weren't like me.

  • They were poor. They lived in a camp.

  • I refused.

  • She knelt down beside me and firmly said, "Go.

  • And don't come back until you've played.

  • Don't ever think people are beneath you

  • or that you have nothing to learn from others."

  • I reluctantly went.

  • I never wanted to disappoint my grandmother.

  • I returned a few hours later,

  • having spent some time playing soccer with the kids in the camp.

  • We walked out of the camp,

  • and I was excitedly telling her what a great time I had

  • and how fantastic the kids were.

  • "Haram!" I said in Arabic. "Poor them."

  • "Haram on us," she said, using the word's different meaning,

  • that we were sinning.

  • "Don't feel sorry for them; believe in them."

  • It wasn't until I left my country of origin for the United States

  • that I realized the impact of her words.

  • After my college graduation, I applied for and was granted political asylum,

  • based on being a member of a social group.

  • Some people may not realize this,

  • but you can still get the death penalty in some countries for being gay.

  • I had to give up my Jordanian citizenship.

  • That was the hardest decision I've ever had to make,

  • but I had no other choice.

  • The point is,

  • when you find yourself choosing between home and survival,

  • the question "Where are you from?" becomes very loaded.

  • A Syrian woman who I recently met at a refugee camp in Greece

  • articulated it best,

  • when she recalled the exact moment she realized she had to flee Aleppo.

  • "I looked out the window and there was nothing.

  • It was all rubble.

  • There were no stores, no streets, no schools. Everything was gone.

  • I had been in my apartment for months,

  • listening to bombs drop and watching people die.

  • But I always thought it would get better,

  • that no one could force me to leave,

  • no one could take my home away from me.

  • And I don't know why it was that morning, but when I looked outside,

  • I realized if I didn't leave, my three young children would die.

  • And so we left.

  • We left because we had to, not because we wanted to.

  • There was no choice," she said.

  • It's kind of hard to believe that you belong

  • when you don't have a home,

  • when your country of origin rejects you because of fear or persecution,

  • or the city that you grew up in is completely destroyed.

  • I didn't feel like I had a home.

  • I was no longer a Jordanian citizen,

  • but I wasn't American, either.

  • I felt a kind of loneliness

  • that is still hard to put into words today.

  • After college, I desperately needed to find a place to call home.

  • I bounced around from state to state

  • and eventually ended up in North Carolina.

  • Kindhearted people who felt sorry for me

  • offered to pay rent

  • or buy me a meal or a suit for my new interview.

  • It just made me feel more isolated and incapable.

  • It wasn't until I met Miss Sarah,

  • a Southern Baptist who took me in at my lowest and gave me a job,

  • that I started to believe in myself.

  • Miss Sarah owned a diner in the mountains of North Carolina.

  • I assumed, because of my privileged upbringing

  • and my Seven Sister education,

  • that she would ask me to manage the restaurant.

  • I was wrong.

  • I started off washing dishes,

  • cleaning toilets and working the grill.

  • I was humbled; I was shown the value of hard work.

  • But most importantly, I felt valued and embraced.

  • I celebrated Christmas with her family,

  • and she attempted to observe Ramadan with me.

  • I remember being very nervous about coming out to her --

  • after all, she was a Southern Baptist.

  • I sat on the couch next to her

  • and I said, "Miss Sarah, you know that I'm gay."

  • Her response is one that I will never forget.

  • "That's fine, honey. Just don't be a slut."

  • (Laughter)

  • (Applause)

  • I eventually moved to Atlanta, still trying to find my home.

  • My journey took a strange turn three years later,

  • after I met a group of refugee kids playing soccer outside.

  • I'd made a wrong turn into this apartment complex,

  • and I saw these kids outside playing soccer.

  • They were playing barefoot with a raggedy soccer ball

  • and rocks set up as goals.

  • I watched them for about an hour,

  • and after that I was smiling.

  • The boys reminded me of home.

  • They reminded me of the way I grew up playing soccer

  • in the streets of Jordan, with my brothers and cousins.

  • I eventually joined their game.

  • They were a little skeptical about letting me join it,

  • because according to them, girls don't know how to play.

  • But obviously I did.

  • I asked them if they had ever played on a team.

  • They said they hadn't, but that they would love to.

  • I gradually won them over, and we formed our first team.

  • This group of kids would give me a crash course in refugees, poverty

  • and humanity.

  • Three brothers from Afghanistan -- Roohullah, Noorullah and Zabiullah --

  • played a major role in that.

  • I showed up late to practice one day to find the field completely deserted.

  • I was really worried.

  • My team loved to practice.

  • It wasn't like them to miss practice.

  • I got out of my car, and two kids ran out from behind a dumpster,

  • waving their hands frantically.

  • "Coach, Rooh got beat up. He got jumped.

  • There was blood everywhere."

  • "What do you mean? What do you mean he got beat up?"

  • "These bad kids came and beat him up, Coach.

  • Everybody left. They were all scared."

  • We hopped into my car and drove over to Rooh's apartment.

  • I knocked on the door, and Noor opened it.

  • "Where's Rooh? I need to talk to him, see if he's OK."

  • "He's in his room, Coach. He's refusing to come out."

  • I knocked on the door.

  • "Rooh, come on out. I need to talk to you.

  • I need to see if you're OK or if we need to go to the hospital."

  • He came out.

  • He had a big gash on his head, a split lip,

  • and he was physically shaken.

  • I was looking at him,

  • and I asked the boys to call for their mom,

  • because I needed to go to the hospital with him.

  • They called for their mom.

  • She came out.

  • I had my back turned to her, and she started screaming in Farsi.

  • The boys fell to the ground laughing.

  • I was very confused,

  • because there was nothing funny about this.

  • They explained to me that she said,

  • "You told me your coach was a Muslim and a woman."

  • From behind, I didn't appear to be either to her.

  • (Laughter)

  • "I am Muslim," I said, turning to her.

  • "Ašhadu ʾan lā ʾilāha ʾilla (A)llāh,"

  • reciting the Muslim declaration of faith.

  • Confused,

  • and perhaps maybe a little bit reassured,

  • she realized that yes,

  • I, this American-acting, shorts-wearing, non-veiled woman,

  • was indeed a Muslim.

  • Their family had fled the Taliban.

  • Hundreds of people in their village

  • were murdered.

  • Their father was taken in by the Taliban,

  • only to return a few months later, a shell of the man he once was.

  • The family escaped to Pakistan,

  • and the two older boys, age eight and 10 at the time,

  • wove rugs for 10 hours a day to provide for their family.

  • They were so excited when they found out that they had been approved

  • to resettle in the United States,

  • making them the lucky 0.1 percent who get to do that.

  • They had hit the jackpot.

  • Their story is not unique.

  • Every refugee family I have worked with has had some version of this.

  • I work with kids

  • who have seen their mothers raped, their fathers' fingers sliced off.

  • One kid saw a bullet put in his grandmother's head,

  • because she refused to let the rebels take him to be a child soldier.

  • Their journeys are haunting.

  • But what I get to see every day is hope, resilience, determination,

  • a love of life

  • and appreciation for being able to rebuild their lives.

  • I was at the boys' apartment one night,

  • when the mom came home after cleaning 18 hotel rooms in one day.

  • She sat down, and Noor rubbed her feet,

  • saying that he was going to take care of her once he graduated.

  • She smiled from exhaustion.

  • "God is good. Life is good. We are lucky to be here."

  • In the last two years, we have seen an escalating anti-refugee sentiment.

  • It's global.

  • The numbers continue to grow because we do nothing to prevent it

  • and nothing to stop it.

  • The issue shouldn't be stopping refugees from coming into our countries.

  • The issue should be not forcing them to leave their own.

  • (Applause)

  • Sorry.

  • (Applause)