Posted by Caroline Pacht on Tue, Mar 29, 2011 at 17:20 pm
A year ago, if someone had told me that I would be on a plane going to Africa, I would have never believed them. Yet, this once-in-a lifetime opportunity presented itself when I was accepted to the HIAS Mission to Kenya and Uganda. It was an experience that I will never forget.
We touched down in Nairobi, Kenya, and were greeted by representatives from HRTK (HIAS Refugee Trust of Kenya) and HIAS USA. At HRTK, we learned about the process they follow to submit applications of refugees seeking to immigrate to countries such as Canada and the United States. We had the opportunity to meet the refugees in person and learn about their individual stories.
There was the young, single woman who had trained to be a teacher before fleeing her village, a couple who reunited after being separated for several years, and an older gentleman who left behind a lifetime of achievements in his country of birth. The one constant theme throughout their stories was how quickly a change in political leadership could completely alter their lives. For many of the refugees, their journeys would only end if they could resettle in another country. While refugees are accepted by Kenya in accordance with UNHCR regulations, they are not granted permanent residence status.
Perhaps what surprised me the most was a feeling that was extremely familiar. Listening to the refugees tell their stories reminded me of the stories that my father, a Holocaust survivor, shared with me. Whether you are from a village in the Democratic Republic of Congo or in Poland, the same fears and challenges apply. Also, there are the same dreams for the future. This is why the work of HRTK and its partner, the Refugee Law Project at Macquarie University in Kampala, Uganda, is so important. They are helping refugees find a new path.
Our trip also included the opportunity to experience some of Africa's wildlife and culture. We visited an elephant reserve and giraffe park in Kenya and saw the amazing bounty of vegetation in Uganda. We also visited the Abayudaya Jewish Community in Mbale, Uganda. It was a great experience talking with members of the community about Jewish traditions in Uganda and the United States.
Since my return to the United States, I am seeking ways to further contribute to HIASí efforts in Africa. I provided an overview of the program to my department at work and will be looking to promote the program to local organizations. I encourage other HIAS Young Leaders to participate on future missions, as it surely will have an impact on their lives as much as it has had on mine.