Connie Britton Shares Her Powerful Call To Action

Video: U.S. Department Of State.
#RefugeesWelcome. According to U.N. Development Programme Goodwill Ambassador Connie Britton, it's a simple message that the world needs to hear right now. It's on all of us to open our hearts, neighborhoods, and countries to people seeking safety and freedom, she adds.
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An unprecedented number of people have been displaced by war and violence around the world. Conditions for those who have been forced to flee have reached a crisis point. The number of refugees worldwide is now more than 65 million people, greater than the populations of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand combined, according to the U.N.

Still, refugees around the world have faced discrimination and struggled to find countries that will accept them. Advocates fear many have forgotten that human beings just like us are behind the headlines.

"A lot of us have seen the news footage, but we are talking about people who are literally fleeing for their lives with absolutely nothing," Britton said. "It's a dire situation."

That's why Britton, along with U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, and others have joined together to share the personal stories of refugees through the #RefugeesWelcome campaign. The actress sat down with Sandrine, a 20-year-old refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to talk about her personal journey.

Britton spoke with Refinery29 about the urgent need for action and the unique role young women can play.

it’s part of our tradition as a country to welcome people who are seeking asylum and assistance. It’s a human issue. Period.

connie britton, undp goodwill ambassador
How big and urgent has the refugee crisis become?
"It’s the worst crisis we have had since World War II. The other thing that is so staggering about it is that over half of the refugees around the world are children. It really is a matter of all of us taking responsibility and taking action to help our fellow human beings."

What are some of the conditions faced by the women, children, and men who are being forced to flee? What kind of journeys are they making?

"In the video, Sandrine spoke to me about how she was fleeing with large numbers of people. As a 13-year-old girl, [she] had to watch people fall down dead because they couldn’t make the journey — old women and young children, all of that. So, it’s really a gruesome reality and that’s what I think people need to keep in mind.

"These are people just like you and me whose homes are in the midst of such conflict that it is unsafe for them to stay there, that they cannot stay there and survive. So, they are forced to flee. In a lot of the places around the world, we are just talking about such extreme danger and there is really no place for them to go, so that was, in particular, Sandrine’s story. But of course, we have also witnessed Syrian refugees and people from other areas of the Middle East who are traveling in boats, trucks — in ways that are unlawful, that are extremely dangerous — and it’s a dire situation."
Photo: Courtesy of UNDP Rwanda.
Goodwill Ambassador Connie Britton visits Rwanda to raise awareness about the UNDP's work in poverty reduction and women’s empowerment.
What are the particular dangers or challenging conditions women and girls face? Is sexual violence also one of the dangers these women face when they are forced to flee?
"Yes, absolutely. In a lot of these places, sexual violence is being used as a tactic of warfare. That is an additional danger to the women and children who are having to flee. On top of that, of course, is trafficking of children. We have had reports of a lot of disappearances of refugee children who have fled to other countries. In many countries, and this is the thing we are realizing, refugees are not welcomed and stigmatized. Therefore, they are not protected in any way. There’s an enormous number of refugee children who have gone missing and there’s a great threat to them as far as getting swept up in child trafficking."

You mentioned that, around the world, refugees are sometimes not welcome. What do you think of some of the rhetoric here in the U.S. about not letting refugees in and some of the statements Donald Trump has made? What do you want the U.S. do in terms of welcoming refugees?
"My personal opinion is that it is the American way to welcome people who are in harm’s way. It’s part of who we are, it’s part of our tradition as a country to welcome people who are seeking asylum and assistance. It’s a human issue. Period. We are a country of immigrants, we are a country of people who have come here for a safer life and a life of freedom.

"It is true that we are living right now in a world that is threatened by terrorism, extreme poverty, and extreme warfare — those are all really, really dangerous realities to the world that we are living in right now. However, I do not believe that those issues should somehow make us change the way we behave as a country, as a nation, as human beings to our fellow human beings around the world. I think it’s really, really important that we acknowledge that these are families and children and people who are just trying to have a safe life. We should do what we can, and for refugees who are here, I do believe strongly that we should welcome them and just see them as the human beings that they are."
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I’m trying to encourage my neighbors, my friends, to really open our hearts to the refugees that we see around us, because they are just like us.

connie britton, undp goodwill ambassador
Do you have any message for Donald Trump when he proposes to ban Muslims from the U.S. or makes statements against accepting refugees?
"No, I don’t have any messages for Donald Trump. I don’t engage with Donald Trump."

What else can people in the United States do to help refugees around the world? How can they get involved to make a positive impact?
"There are a lot of different things that we can do. What we have been focusing on with the U.N. with this program is our acceptance of the refugees who are coming into this country, really doing our part to accept them into our communities and neighborhoods. We need to understand that someone who comes in as a refugee has a story to tell that is probably different than many of the stories we have to tell. There is something that we can learn from that.

"Talking to Sandrine, she is an incredibly impressive young woman in what she has been able to accomplish, considering she has basically been living in extreme circumstances for the last seven years — since she was 13 years old. Now she’s living in the United States, she’s working, [she] is going to go to college, and she wants to be a doctor. She is speaking in her community about the things we can do to lift ourselves up, in spite of whatever circumstances we are facing. I’m trying to encourage my neighbors, my friends, to really open our hearts to the refugees that we see around us, because they are just like us. We can really learn from them, as well."

I look around and see the young women coming up right now and they really are just ballsy and brave and excited and exhilarated.

connie britton, undp goodwill ambassador
What advice do you have for young women?
"My advice for young women is really always about finding your voice and really getting to know who you are and what your heart is. Knowing what your voice is and what you have to offer to the world and to yourself. I was recently at the United State of Women summit and Michelle Obama said something similar: ‘Young women should spend the time and make their priority trying to get to know themselves.’

"I think that’s really important, because I’ve always felt if you know your own voice and you’re not afraid to use it, if you’re brave about using your voice, there’s no one else who will be able to say the same thing that you can say. That’s so important and that is going to make an impact on the world and inspire other people too. So, that’s always my advice."
What about this work brings you joy?
"I love humanity, I love the way we can really learn from each other, and for me, that is a very genuine experience. I have done a lot of traveling around the United States and around the world. Everywhere I go, I meet the most incredible people, people in all different circumstances, and I always learn so much from them. It makes me so much of a bigger person when I am able to have a better understanding of somebody else. To me, that’s the greatest joy."

Do you think young women have a unique role to play in this election and in addressing this global issue?
"I do. This is a great time for young women. I look around and see the young women coming up right now and they really are just ballsy and brave and excited and exhilarated. I think that there is a real sense for young women right now that they have so much to offer and can actually make a difference in the world. I think they can make a big difference in this election, too."

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Refinery29 is committed to covering the women behind the headlines of the refugee crisis. Read the full multimedia feature, "Behind the Headlines: Daughters of Paradise," here. More coverage on the human faces of the world's refugee crisis can be found here.

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