Columbus, Ohio prides itself on being one of the most welcoming cities in America.
Our city government mobilized a New Americans initiative to help welcome and integrate new arrivals, several public schools accommodate students who require ESL instruction, and there are many well established refugee communities and organizations here already. The resulting diversity has kept our city strong and our economy robust for many years.
Now refugee issues are becoming more and more prominent in the press and in peoples’ minds, but it seems there is still a disconnect between refugees and the people in their resettlement communities. So we decided that the native Columbus community needed to meet our new refugee neighbors. Face to face. Person to person. It was time for our clients to have their voices heard and for Columbus to hear them.
US Together, HIAS’ partner in Columbus (with branches in Cleveland and Toledo as well), organized a refugee panel discussion on December 9th at a wonderful local coffee shop called Global Gallery. Guests were asked to bring gently used winter clothing items as a donation for admission, and there was table of raffle prizes from local businesses as well. The evening began with a short presentation about the process of refugee resettlement, from the time one becomes a displaced person to the arrival and resettlement process in the third (or fourth) country. The 13 security procedures that each refugee goes through in order to achieve resettlement were outlined, and the audience was shocked to learn about this incredibly stringent process that each refugee must complete before arriving in Ohio. Our three speakers then took the stage.
Julien* from the Central African Republic, who has a family of 9, told the attentive audience about fleeing his home after hearing news of the next town over being destroyed by fighters who were moving towards his village. He and one of his brothers carried their younger brother, who suffers from Huntington’s disease and is therefore unable to walk, over 8 hours to a UN outpost where they waited 5 years for resettlement to the US. Julien ended the evening with a huge “thank you” to the Columbus community for their smiles and their hospitality.
Dipendra* from Nepal spoke about his time as a professor of Sociology after the ethnic cleansing in Bhutan forced him to flee his home as a child. He recalled when he was young having a dog that he loved very much. As his family fled on foot from their village, Dipendra was forced to watch his loyal pet walk with them for miles, eventually collapsing when it could no longer keep up. When asked about his proudest moment during his journey as a refugee, he described the immense pride he felt when he was in the airplane with his wife and child leaving Nepal. Dipendra looked out of the window at the beautiful Nepalese landscape: the snowy, white mountaintops, the lush green foothills, and the expansive grassy plains of the country that he is so proud to have come from.
Nizar* from Syria shared his appreciation for living in safety now, and expressed his deep concern for his family still living amongst violence in his home country. The places he used to play as a child are what he misses most about his former home. Nizar’s wish is to pursue an education and to help others in the community.
The audience applauded enthusiastically. It was clear that every single person in the room was happy to share their city with these new residents. The large crowd not only supported our clients with their presence and attention, but also with their donations. US Together raised almost $200 and collected over 100 pieces of clothing that evening, including many warm coats, hats, scarves, and blankets.
This community gathering was more successful than we could have hoped for, and we will be organizing many more in the coming months at bigger venues so that more Columbus residents can meet their new American neighbors and greet them with open arms, open minds, and open hearts.
*Speakers’ names have been changed at their request to protect their privacy