Politics of Poverty

Why Oxfam rented President Trump’s childhood home

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Refugee partners (L-R) Abdi, Eiman and Uyen chat with Oxfam staff just after arriving, sharing their initial reactions upon entering President Trump's childhood home. (Photo: Chris Gregory / Oxfam)

An unprecedented decision making moment for the US government’s response to the refugee crisis.

This week, as President Trump joins world leaders in New York for the United Nation’s General Assembly, Oxfam took an unusual step for an international NGO, we rented the childhood home of the sitting US President. We wanted to send a message of support for refugees, and give them a platform to tell their own stories in a way that world leaders, US politicians, and the press could not avoid.

When we set out to rent the house, our aim was fairly straightforward: to send a message to the President, Congress and the Supreme Court – all of whom are facing decisions this month that will impact the lives of millions of refugees around the world – that refugees are welcome here and they should be welcome everywhere.

A mat Oxfam placed at the front door of President Trump’s childhood home states “Refugees Welcome” to bring attention to the refugee crisis and the responsibility President Trump and world leaders have to address it. (Photo: Chris Gregory / Oxfam)

By renting the home, we hoped to generate greater pressure on the President to ensure that the target he sets for the number of refugees the US will resettle next year reflects the immense need around the world, and not a small-minded appeal to isolationism and bigotry. We hoped to nudge Congress to provide the funding refugee resettlement and relief programs need to help the millions that have been displaced. And we hoped to show the consequences underlying the Supreme Court’s decision on the constitutionality of the President’s discriminatory refugee ban.

It is not at all unusual for Oxfam to shake the trees or try odd things to call attention to issues like these. But it is not an easy task to get those with power or an audience to listen.

This has become especially challenging in a time when a heavily CAPITALIZED and punctuated (!) 140 character message can drive weeks’ worth of news coverage or inflame a global political crisis. We are convinced that creativity to get cut-through for under-covered topics – be they the worst displacement crisis since World War II, or a multi-country food crisis threatening starvation for more than 20 million people – is not only important, it is mission critical.

What we never could have imagined was how powerful the stories of our courageous partners would be, or the strength and poise the individuals sharing them would possess. Eiman, Ghassan, Uyen, and Abdi were all forced to flee their homes in Somalia, Syria, and Vietnam before being resettled here in the United States. Like many displaced people, they lost family members in dramatic and traumatic ways. They lost their worldly possessions, their homes, and their communities.

They lived through war, persecution and natural disasters. They have every right to be angry, cynical, even nihilistic. But they are none of those things. If you are lucky enough to meet them, or at least to hear their stories, you’ll understand immediately their passion, their selflessness and their resolve to use their experience, even their trauma, to ease the burden of others still waiting for a chance at a better life.

Oxfam staff hold a “Refugees Welcome” banner with refugees (L-R) Abdi, Uyen, Ghassan and Eiman, in front of President Trump’s childhood home to call attention to world leaders’ responsibility to address the refugee crisis. (Photo: Chris Gregory / Oxfam)

So what began as a straightforward attempt to change the political calculus of our government leaders, evolved into something different, something more important.

As a rights-based organization, we do our very best to amplify the voices of people on the front lines of global crises so they can speak for themselves.

Ultimately that’s what this project was for. To put those most qualified to speak about refugees, and how they should be treated, front and center. If achieving that goal requires something as unusual and frankly weird as renting the President’s childhood home, then so be it.

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