Yesterday morning we attended Lawrence University’s commencement ceremony; although Elena graduated last year, we were there to celebrate her boyfriend David’s graduation.
I have been to many college and law school graduations and am almost always disappointed by the graduation speaker. That is not the case at Lawrence, which seems less concerned with making a splash by inviting a big-name celebrity than with finding individuals who exemplify the fundamental educational values of the university.
Last year I thought the talk given by author Lan Samantha Chang at Elena’s graduation was one of the best graduation talks I had heard. This year’s speaker was even better.
I’m guessing Gil Loescher, an expert on international refugee policy, was not a name known to many of the graduating seniors (or most of those in the audience for that matter), despite his many years of work in this area consulting with governments, international organizations, and research institutes as well as authoring many articles and books.
Loescher spoke eloquently about the refugee crisis and the importance of immigrants – including refugees – to this country and he received much applause during his remarks. But what touched me most was his sharing of his experience in August 2003. He was in the office of the then-UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Baghdad in a meeting with eight other people. A suicide bomber detonated a truck bomb outside the building. Everyone in the room was killed except for Loescher. He spend hours trapped in the debris of the collapsed building as American soldiers tried to rescue him and the others. His legs were crushed and had to be amputated by the soldiers.
What allowed him to go on with his work? Certainly no one would have criticized him if he folded up his tent after such an incident. What allowed him to adjust to the new normal of life without legs, the only survivor of the horror he suffered?
One of the things he pointed to was his experience with refugees over the years. Their strength, their courage, their determination, their hope. Hope in the face of overwhelming odds. He learned from those on whose behalf we are working. (I thought of our work at City House, where we always stress the mutuality of benefit between spiritual listeners and those to whom we provide services.)
Not all, or even most of the graduates Loescher addressed will make refugees their life work, but his words were an encouragement to them to commit their lives to making a difference (and we know there is no shortage of ways to do that). His talk was an inspiring one, not only for the newly graduated, but for all of us.
Update: You can watch Loescher’s talk here. (It beings at about 1:32:00.)