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Commencement speech at The Fletcher School, Tufts University

Speeches and statements

Commencement speech at The Fletcher School, Tufts University

23 May 2021

Thank you, Dean Kyte. Thank you Rachel. And thank you, graduates. It is an honour to be somehow “with” you today and congratulate the newest group of distinguished alumni from the Fletcher School, in what I really hope will be your last virtual commencement.

Fletcher, as we know, has produced a wealth of leaders in all walks of life, including United Nations officials and dedicated humanitarians, and I know we can count on many of you to help lead the world through tomorrow’s challenges.

Dear Graduates,

I will state the obvious, but it has been a difficult year, even for the most privileged amongst us. We have been separated from family and friends. Have lost loved ones. Have been forced to grieve alone.

And I know that young people have had a particularly difficult time, with restrictions on life and concerns about work and employment. Students have been unable to take advantage of the richness that university life normally presents and the learning experiences that come both in - and out - of the classroom.

The challenges of the past year have been even more harsh for the world’s most vulnerable, including the more than 80 million people whom my organisation, UNHCR - the United Nations Refugee Agency, helps and strives to protect – people forced to flee their homes because of conflict, violence, discrimination or persecution.

Think of how bad things must be if your only path to safety is not to stay in your home, but rather to flee it; to be forced to leave family, friends, and the familiar. To be thrown into the unknown of a different country; perhaps a different language and culture where – if you have documentation – even your legal status may be questioned; where you and your children may not have access to health care or schooling; or be able to work legally.

In this past year even that path to safety – the crossing of borders - has narrowed. Movement (literally, as sometimes it means running!) provides an escape for people fleeing the threats of war and persecution. Today, movement has come to represent a threat to our health: the virus moves with people. This is a terrible dilemma which we have struggled to resolve in the past few months.

Dear Graduates,

The world into which you embark is one more divided and – in many ways – more dangerous than it has been at any period at least in more than thirty-five years of my own humanitarian career. We live in a multipolar world, with countries taking what I call an egoistic approach to politics – allies on this issue; adversaries on the next – an approach that embodies the toxic “me first, my country first” mentality, at the expense of enduring relationships, and values, and the interests of humanity. And in the process, the heaviest burden is shouldered by the world’s most vulnerable.

We have seen this fragmentation of international politics in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic where some irresponsible leaders ignored scientific advice, blamed others and refused to cooperate. We see it play out in the scandalous inequality of global vaccine distribution, which is quickly leaving the world divided between inoculated and infected, with mutations and viral variants coming back to strike everybody again and again. International egoism, graduates, is dramatically short-sighted!

We see it in the approach to the climate emergency, which cannot be addressed unless we all – and urgently – cooperate and take dramatic steps; for without that cooperation we will all suffer dramatically.

And we see it with conflict, where despite desperate pleas for a COVID ceasefire, old wars resumed, protracted ones continued, and new wars erupted, with the most vulnerable – yet again - bearing the brunt: because, as the author (and refugee) Viet Thanh Nguyen wrote in his novel The Sympathizer, ‘no one asks poor people if they want war.’

Dear Friends,

I have painted a very dark picture of the world today. Yet, it is important not to despair, but rather fight to make it the way it should be.

And if you are as lucky as me and get to work for refugees, you will see that even those from whom everything was taken also refuse to give up. It is their drive; their determination that continue to inspire me every single day.

I saw it in the eyes of a young Venezuelan mother I met last year determined to find safety and rebuild her small family’s life in a welcoming Colombian community.

In the resilience of a South Sudanese man, the same age as me, who had been a refugee four times — four times! —  in his life — the same length of my own, stable and privileged one! — and yet he still wanted to return to his homeland in peace.

I’ve seen it in the heroism of an Afghan refugee, now a doctor in the United Kingdom, working on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic response.

They and countless others have not given up so nor can we. Instead, we must learn, engage and act, in whatever field we choose or we are chosen to be involved.

Dear Graduates,

This is a commencement speech and I’m supposed to send you off with some wise counsel and inspiring words.

Instead, I will – in all humility – simply share some reflections for your consideration, as my generation is not doing very well in sorting out the world’s challenges and therefore I am not sure we have the standing to impart too much advice on yours.

So, first, see the world for how it is — see through it with clinical eyes — but don’t become cynical and don’t accept that it has to be that way. Create opportunities for change and always strive to find ways forward, if not solutions, even – or especially – in difficult situations.

This is something we at UNHCR try to do every day, as we address the impossible dilemmas which the failure of politics forces humanitarians to face.

And that often results in difficult decisions. Choosing a path of engagement means that you will find yourselves not in the comfort zone of the black or white; but in the frequently unsettling grey areas. You will have to be more than smart to navigate those choices; but stay true to core values, uphold equality and integrity, maintain a strong sense of empathy and kindness towards the others. They will be your north stars. You know, perhaps, the evangelical admonition which I have always cherished: “So be wise as serpents, and innocent as doves.”

My second reflection is about the scourge of stigma. We have seen how this has played out this year with fears that the virus was brought by “the other” — people of Asian origin were attacked because of it. It has forced people with COVID to hide their symptoms, leaving them so sick they could not be saved, or allowing the virus to spread further.

At UNHCR, we see every day how stigma leads to violence and displacement — it can be tied to one’s ethnic origin, or social class, or sexual orientation. And it can follow refugees to their countries of asylum, leaving them vulnerable or even threatened, rather than safe and welcomed.

So mine is an appeal – do more (we must all do more!) to counter stigma, racism and discrimination wherever they lie. In our countries, in our communities, sometimes even hidden inside ourselves.

And to conclude, a message which I think is appropriate to graduates of your great school: believe in, and support, international cooperation. It is a simple message, but regrettably we cannot take it for granted any more. The big challenges humanity faces, be it COVID, climate, or conflict, require us to work together ever more closely, if we are to truly heed the Fletcher School’s greater mission – the promotion of peace, prosperity, and justice in the world.