Putting it in Perspective: Former Refugees Living in the United States

Posted by Ilanit Sisso on Mon, Oct 17, 2011 at 14:22 pm

What does a Sudanese supermodel, an Afghan journalist, a Soviet lawyer, a Vietnamese member of the United States House of Representatives, a young Yemeni student, and a Polish Holocaust survivor have in common? They are all proud Americans and former refugees.

On August 3-4, 2011, I attended the first ever Refugee Congress in Washington, DC. Sixty former refugees representing six decades gathered in our nation’s capitol to mark the 60th anniversary of the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees to tell their stories and to discuss challenges that refugees face in the United States and around the world.

While at the conference, I debated immigration reform with former United States Representative Joseph Cao from Louisiana, spent time escorting a Holocaust survivor with a sad but remarkable story, and met a man who lived in a refugee camp in eastern Nepal for eighteen years. However, my conversations with a 20-year-old Sudanese girl and my Capitol Hill visits with her were what stuck with me the most.

She moved to Portland, Maine, from Sudan in 2005 without knowing a word of English. Since then, she graduated high school with honors and received a scholarship to attend a local university where she is majoring in social work. She told me about her life in Sudan and in Maine. In Maine, she works three jobs to help sustain her family while studying. She also founded and leads a youth group called Darfur Youth of Tomorrow, which aims to raise awareness in her community about violence in Darfur.

When we arrived on Capitol Hill and sat down with Congressional staffers, she eloquently told her story. She spoke about her life in Maine and her aspirations. She also thanked the staffers for continued U.S. support and for our strong refugee resettlement program. However, she emphasized the necessity to do more. Even though South Sudan officially became its own country on July 9th, 2011, violence in the region still continues. As a result, the situation remains dire for many. She said she felt the need to be the voice of members of her community in Maine, in Sudan, and for refugees around the world that still need help. She was articulate, confident, and offered well-thought out responses to questions that Congressional staffers asked her (and did all this while fasting for Ramadan!). This is an impressive feat for any 20-year old, but even more so for someone who just learned English six years ago.

Hearing these individual’s stories first-hand reinforced my belief in the importance of the work that HIAS does in helping millions of people, Jewish and non-Jewish, worldwide. The United States needs to continue to welcome and support refugees because the contributions they make to our society, when given the opportunity, are invaluable. How many 20-year-olds do you know that work three jobs, are attending a university on a scholarship and lead a youth group? I encourage you to learn more about and urge your Member of Congress to support the Refugee Protection Act of 2011, which reaffirms the United States' historic commitment to protecting refugees who are fleeing persecution.

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