Memories that Shape a Lifetime

National Headquarters  |  June 14, 2016
The refugees who shared their stories in Tzu Chi’s documentary series “The Resettled” fled violence in their homeland, then found safe refuge in America, but the one thing they can never escape is memories of their turbulent past. Such recollections can be a burden to bear, and yet as we see in this documentary series, the past is also a spur that drives refugees to work tirelessly to build a better future in a new land. George Tarr, whom we meet in Episode 5, is a perfect example of this.


George “escaped hell on earth” in his native Liberia, and was resettled in New York City at the tender age of seven.  Today, he is fiercely focused on completing his college education, then leaving a positive mark on society. When asked to share more of his story for this blog, George revealed how his memories are always close at hand, surging during mundane moments like when seeing the Statue of Liberty from the ferry on his way home to Staten Island.

Up to now when I’m on the ferry I still gaze at it just like the first time I saw it. To a refugee like me who has seen nothing but war, it represents freedom from hearing gun shots at the age of five, the joy of going to bed with a full stomach, the joy of not having to sleep in the forest so I could wake up to see another day.

Such memories don’t simply fade away: instead, they can shape a lifetime, and for George, they ignite and fuel the urge to help others.

Given my experience as a Liberian refugee who fled a brutal civil war, I am passionate about working to assist other people facing overwhelming challenges. My earliest awareness of this passion occurred in 3rd grade when I was chosen to be in the young diplomat program. Although my school district had one of the highest drop-out rates on Staten Island, this early opportunity set me on my path to being an academically motivated role model. As a very young student leader, I discovered my deep desire to contribute to my low-income community ravaged by violence. By high school, this interest blossomed into a serious commitment as a volunteer with African Refuge which is a non-profit organization on Staten Island dedicated to serving youth at risk. In the case of our community, we aimed to help two groups in the neighborhood – Africans and African Americans - engaged in a violent gang war for control. As the youngest board member, I was instrumental in designing programs to bring the community together, including a housing program, a health education program, and a drop-in center for teens. I am particularly proud of our mural painting project that still decorates the walls of African Refuge and brought together all the factions of the neighborhood. My role was to mediate between the two groups, invite them to participate in the process with a professional artist, and also obtain supplies and support from the International Rescue Committee where I was a peer counselor. I am pleased to report that the tension in Park Hill has diminished significantly and believe that my participation in the community helped make this happen.

And that was just the beginning of George’s interest in humanitarian service.

I’m driven by the work of organizations such as the International Rescue Committee, African Refuge, and Tuesday’s Children. Their dedication and determination to helping people around the world inspired and motivated me to choosing a major such as political science in college because I wanted to understand what was going on not just in my community, but around the world, and how I could get involved. I also served as a peer counselor at the International Rescue Committee’s summer academy where I mentored newly arrived refugee students. I assisted children and their parents with the bureaucratic process of applying for school and finding housing in the city of New York. My goal is to one day, work for either the United Nations or the US Foreign Department, or a non-profit organization because I want to do something meaningful with my life. I want a job dedicated to making a change in people’s lives on a global scale, not that helping people locally does not matter, I just feel that I can do more on a global level.

That’s a vast vision for a young man, just 24. Yet perhaps his memories of the suffering he experienced and witnessed as a young child are key to his current motivation and worldview. In fact, Master Cheng Yen has pointed out in her teachings that seeing suffering can lead us towards the right view, by revealing the blessings we ignore and don’t appreciate in our privileged lives.

Why are people unhappy? They have everything they want, but they are not happy. Why is that? Because they are not content. So, what can we do to help them? We can take them to see suffering. If we tell them that they actually lead a good life, and that many people suffer greatly, will they listen? They won’t. So we should take them to see suffering for themselves. See, talking to people is not as effective as taking them to see suffering for themselves. When they see how others are worse off than them, they’ll realize how blessed they actually are.

We can never replicate the refugee experience ourselves; but through their memories and stories, refugees can be our teachers, reminding us of what we no longer notice or appreciate – the lack of which is the cause of suffering for millions of people around the world. In fact, we can gain wisdom daily from the people who cross our path, with hidden tales to tell and life experience to share. George is keenly aware of this, and also of the sacrifices made by newcomers to America, and the challenges they face.

The resettlement process when I came was much easier compared to the resettlement process now. It’s more complicated because of what is going on around the world. Today, countries are more afraid of immigrants because of the acts of several extremist groups, and also because of the fear that politicians have instilled in people. Despite all of that, I personally feel that the United States should still resettle immigrants no matter where they are from, because this country is the country of Immigrants. People from all walks of life left their country in search of so many different things. Some come in search of political freedom, others religious freedom, or the opportunity to acquire a better education that will lead to a better life. On several occasions when on my way to the ferry, I noticed something that a lot of people may not: The majority of people who drive cabs are foreigners. I noticed the exactly same thing during my recent visit to Boston University. Most of the time, I engage in a conversation with the driver. Sometimes I ask a question like, ‘where are you from’? After that one question, the conversation leads to both of us discovering something about the other. During the ride, I’d discover that he or she was either a banker, doctor, businessman, or nurse back in their country. The amazing thing about the people that I encounter on my short rides is that despite their success back in their country, they left because they all wanted to come to the land of opportunity to live the American Dream, just like every other citizen of this country.

So let’s support them, because they are the bedrock of this nation, and their stories can change our outlook on life, and help us recognize everything we have to be grateful for. In that discovery of our blessings, our innate altruism may arise, opening the path to the joy of serving others with love. As for refugees, they can always revisit their memories to recharge their inspiration to help others, and even save them from “hell on earth” in some cases.


Watch The Resettled – Episode 5: Leaving Their Mark to learn more about George’s story.

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