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For Immediate Release
Office of the First Lady
June 23, 2008

Remarks by Mr. Okhowa in Honor of World Refugee Day
East Garden

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June 20, 2008

Welcome to Mr. Okhowa.

MR. OKHOWA: Madam First Lady, ladies and gentlemen: I'm truly honored to be here today in the presence of such a distinguished company. I would especially like to thank the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration at the Department of State for inviting me to speak at such an important event, and at the most famous of American institutions. Although the White House seems bigger on the TV show "The West Wing" -- (laughter) -- but it is still a very impressive edifice in real life and I sensed its special aura the second I walked in the door.

Years ago, when I was growing up in Al Hillah Iraq, if someone had told me that someday I would be giving a speech at the White House in the presence of the First Lady, I would have told them that they were crazy. As it turned out, my life has taken many unanticipated turns. Some were positive; others were heartbreaking. I'm sure that my story is not unique. Millions of people around the world have been compelled to leave their countries, homes, and in many cases, their families, in search of refuge and a new life in another country. Thousands of people every day are caught in the middle of situations where they have to make extremely difficult, often heart-wrenching decisions to save themselves and their loved ones from terrible situations -- even the threat of death. I am not the only one.

When the American troops liberated my country, Iraq, from years of tyranny under the regime of Saddam Hussein, I was among the first in Hillah to volunteer to assist the Americans in their effort to help Iraq transition from a brutal dictatorship to a free, tolerant, pluralistic and democratic society. As everyone here knows, there were many obstacles, and there continue to be some elements in Iraq -- some local, others foreign -- who do not want Iraq to prosper as a democracy or for Iraqis to live in security and peace. These same forces succeeded in forcing me, and others like me, to leave my beloved Iraq. I have to concede that these advocates of what some people aptly characterized as a "culture of death" won a few battles early on. However, as many promising developments in Iraq now indicate, in the end, the forces of good will always triumph over the forces of evil.

I paid a heavy price -- as did some friends and relatives -- for commitment to liberty and democracy, but I honestly believe that my sacrifice and the sacrifice of thousands of others, including many of your sons and daughters who fought alongside Iraqi soldiers, did not go in vain. It is only a matter of time before the great people of Iraq triumph over their enemies and prove to the naysayers that people in the Middle East want democracy; we are ready for it and we will attain it in the due time.

After I left Iraq , I spent four months in Amman, Jordan, working with refugee officials, as I waited for my application to be approved. I already had many relatives in Jordan and the people of Amman welcomed me and my family, as they did many other Iraqis. But I knew that if I wanted to start my life anew and give my two young daughters the best chance to live in security, and to fully pursue their dreams, whatever they may be, I had to come to the United States. That much I knew.

What I did not know was how warm and welcoming Americans would be. Words alone cannot express my gratitude and appreciation for the warm hospitality that the good people of Boise, Idaho, showed me and my family when I first arrived in the U.S. For those of you who have never been to Boise, I highly recommend that you visit it if you get a chance. (Laughter.) They are amazing people. The people of Boise treated me almost like a celebrity, and in fact, some overly kind American friends even suggested I run for mayor in the future. (Laughter.) Yet, I did not sense that they treated me differently because of the hardships my family and I had endured.

I am sure that some of them empathized with me because they we're aware of their own ancestors' immigrant experience. Mostly though, I think they treated me with respect and kindness because that is how they treat each other and everyone else. Their core American values enjoin them to come to the aid of other human beings in distress to try to alleviate the hardship of others less fortunate. This is the America I know and have come to love.

Given my experience with the U.S. government in Iraq, and my understanding of the Arab and Muslim worlds, it was natural for me to end up here in Washington, D.C., sooner or later. Due in large part to the kindness and compassion of another American, who was my former boss in Al Hillah and who is now my current boss at the State Department, I was able to secure a position where I hope I am playing a role, no matter how small, in bridging the gap in understating that continues to exist between some in the Arab and Muslim worlds and the U.S.

For a variety of reasons, some people in the Arab world continue to exhibit animosity towards the U.S. and cling to misperceptions and misconceptions about U.S. values and policies. Through my work as a member of the State Department's Digital Outreach team, my colleagues and I are trying to change that picture, sometimes one person at a time.

It is my solemn promise to everyone in this room -- or in this garden -- (laughter) -- that I will do all that is within my power, both through my work and in my personal life, to tell people in the Middle East and elsewhere about what America and Americans are all about. My presence among you here today and my position at the State Department is a testament to the fact that America is indeed still the place where everyone -- no matter what race, ethnicity, religion or gender -- has a chance to prove their skills and talents; indeed I am happy my little daughters Mariam and Nabaa will have a chance here to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Thank you very much. (Applause.)

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