The Rockefellers have always believed in welcoming refugees.
Miranda Kaiser, a direct descendant of the American oil baron and philanthropist, is working to help refugees succeed in the United States.
About 35 miles north of New York City lie 177 beautifully manicured acres, dotted by sculpture gardens and punctuated by a Beaux Arts mansion fit for royalty. Welcome to Kykuit, an estate built for John D. Rockefeller Sr., the legendary industrial magnate and august patriarch of a family whose name is practically synonymous with the building of the modern United States of America.
“My family traces its lineage back to coming over on the Mayflower,” said Miranda Kaiser, great, great granddaughter of Rockefeller Sr., referring to the ship that carried the first Pilgrims – refugees fleeing persecution in Europe who laid the foundations of the United States – to the “New World” in 1620. “I think that this country would never have become what it has become today if there hadn’t been this mix of cultures and peoples from many places around the world.”
As Miranda and generations of Rockefellers grew up frolicking in the gardens of the Kykuit estate, elders of the dynasty were directing their storied fortunes, hearts and minds towards making sure that refugees from around the world found safety, compassion and opportunity in the land the Rockefellers helped build. And in the process they have helped set the American standard for welcoming the vulnerable stranger.
“There’s been a long tradition for support for refugees around the world starting in World War I up to current time which is particularly interesting to me given my current line of work where I’m the co-president of the Refugee Center Online,” Miranda explained to UNHCR in conversations at Kykuit.
This fifth generation Rockefeller decided to throw her support about two years ago behind the Refugee Center Online, a virtual platform that helps resettled refugees adjust to their new lives in the United States.
“I remember being able to tell my grandfather about it and how excited he was about the work,” she said, referring to David Rockefeller. “He, of course being the older generation, wasn’t as familiar with the technology. But the ideas were old and familiar to him of welcoming and trying to help people establish themselves on their own merit.”
Miranda recounts how at the age of 101 her grandfather pledged two years of financial support for the Refugee Center Online. “He was very long thinking,” she smiled as she reminisced. “Just as he was about to turn 102, I had dinner with him. He said that he would authorize the check to go out. It must have been one of the last philanthropic gifts that he authorized and the day that he died (March 20, 2017) was the day that the organization received the check.”
Kaiser intentionally selected the Rockefeller estate in New York this year as the site for the organization’s strategic planning retreat for its board of directors – of which half are refugees. Attendees included people like Naser Yahya, 38, who said his family fought against ISIS in Northern Iraq making it necessary for him to flee Erbil. Today, PhD in hand and a father to three including one-year old twins, he has created a new life in the Midwest.
Then there is Mohy Omer, 33, from Sudan who fled first to Kenya for a little over a year and was then resettled in Fargo, North Dakota. “It was really scary and it was hopeful,” he said, recalling his resettlement experience. “I didn’t know a single person. It’s extremely cold. A lot of people did not look like me and of course speak like me.”
But the Fargo community made clear to Mohy that he was welcome with them – and Mohy more than rose to the occasion. He taught himself English, put himself through university, and afterward impressed North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp enough to hire him to work as an intern in her Capitol Hill office. Since then he has met President Obama – twice – works for the United States Institute of Peace and dreams of working in the national security establishment one day.
Kaiser explained that both as a human being in general and as a Rockefeller in particular she feels a strong calling to help ensure that the compassion, opportunity and safety that are so deeply woven into the fabric of the traditional American response to refugees are preserved and strengthened.
“I think particularly right now, when a lot of refugees who are already here are very afraid of what is happening and refugees who are waiting to come into the country are afraid. My family felt it important to show that we as the Rockefeller family continue to welcome refugees and always will.
“There is a myth these days of ‘perfect security,’” Kaiser continued. “You know so much of our humanity and our country, and our culture is tied up in refugees and immigrants coming here and being a part of our society. If we’re going to close the door on them we are going to give up a lot.”