The Strengths of Joining Migrant and Refugee Leaders – ‘If You Want to Go Far, Go Together’

Participants in the Migrant and Refugee Leadership Academy meet with White House officials in the Old Executive Office Building in Washington  DC.
Participants in the Migrant and Refugee Leadership Academy meet with White House officials in the Old Executive Office Building in Washington DC.
Nyamal, member of the Planning Committee and workshop facilitator at the 2015 Academy.
Nyamal, member of the Planning Committee and workshop facilitator at the 2015 Academy.

Last month, 93 former refugees, migrants, and allies traveled from across the country to attend the LIRS 2015 Migrant and Refugee Leadership Academy. This year’s Academy spearheaded several new initiatives including a Planning Committee comprised of former Academy participants, and the bridging of migrant and refugee participants. The inclusion of both migrants and former refugees allowed participants to bridge their respective immigration experiences and find strength in unity. 

As a Planning Committee member and workshop facilitator, Nyamal offers a unique viewpoint of the successes of the Academy. In today’s blog post, Nyamal discusses the value in the Academy for participants and facilitators alike.

Q: Share your reflections on the Academy. What do you think were the strengths of the event?
Nyamal Tutdeal (NT): This year the Academy was unique because it was the first time that LIRS brought together migrants and refugee leaders to train and equip them with the tools needed to advocate on the issues facing both migrants and refugees. As the leaders saw in the training, migrants and refugees have more in common than different.

Academy participants share ideas during the training day in Baltimore, MD.
Academy participants share ideas during the training day in Baltimore, MD.

Q: How do you think the planning committee members’ role improved the effectiveness of the Academy?
NT: The planning committee members’ role in planning and facilitating improved the effectiveness of the Academy greatly because we had gone through the Academy last year and knew firsthand how the participants would feel. The participants this year connected with us, because in one way or another, we share a common story of being a refugee or migrant. They could relate to us and we, in turn, could understand where their questions were coming from.

Q: What was your most valuable or rewarding experience at the Academy?
NT:
 Seeing the increase in the number of women participants, and seeing a participant bring her 3-month-old daughter to the Academy so she could get the training to better her daughter’s future was very moving. That action of love spoke to me on a deeper level, and I still get emotional thinking about it now.

I was overcome by emotions during the ending session. One of the participants wrote a poem about being a refugee, making a change, and overcoming the obstacles you face in your journey. It’s interesting when you learn about yourself through the eyes of others.

Participants in the Migrant and Refugee Leadership Academy walk past the Supreme Court and the Capitol as they head out to lobby in the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington DC.
Participants walk past the Supreme Court and the Capitol in Washington DC.

Q:  How did you grow as a leader and advocate as a planning committee member?
NT:
After doing some self-reflection, I am amazed at the changes I’ve seen in myself. At the Academy in 2014, I was an eager participant ready to learn how to be a better advocate and leader in my community. I’ve now learned how to tell my story and the story of the countless refugees who came here as children and are now contributing citizens in their newfound country.

Coming back this year as a Planning Committee member and a facilitator was a humbling experience. I would say my leadership style is unconventional; I used humor to engage participants and actively listened to the participants’ stories; “He who learns teaches,” is an Ethiopian proverb. From this Academy I’ve learned to listen with not just my ears, but with my soul.

Q:  What do you see as the future of the Academy? 
NT: There is an African proverb that comes to mind when I think about this question: “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” LIRS has helped many migrants and refugees in their advocacy work and in creating awareness about the countless issues facing both refugees and migrants (documented and undocumented). Together we will go far, using all of our voices. Now it is not just the voices of the LIRS staff that are being heard by the elected officials, but the voices of migrant and refugee constituents as well, which is profound and inspiring for everyone involved.

At the Crossroads for Unaccompanied Migrant Children: LIRS releases unified vision for the protection of vulnerable migrant children in the United States

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Since 1939, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service has worked tirelessly to welcome newcomers on behalf of Lutheran churches in the United States. In the wake of increased violence in Central America that forced more than 51,000 children to seek safety alone in the United States in the summer of 2014, our work to ensure the protection of vulnerable migrant children has never been more important.

Last week, we released a new report, “At the Crossroads for Unaccompanied Migrant Children: Policy, Practice and Protection,” investigating current policy and practice challenges facing these vulnerable children and providing a set of fundamental principles for approaching work with unaccompanied children. The report also provides a comprehensive set of policy recommendations for U.S. government decision makers with responsibility for treatment of unaccompanied children.

This report is the result of a series of roundtable discussions hosted by LIRS and its findings have been informed by the wisdom, experience, and passion of an extraordinary group of national and local experts on unaccompanied refugee and migrant children.

Based on the policy, practice, and protection wisdom of participants in these Roundtable meetings, LIRS developed
 a set of seven child protection principles to guide governmental and non-governmental work with unaccompanied children:

  1. Unaccompanied children are first and foremost children. Policies and practices must recognize their needs within a context of the best interests of the child.
  2. Screening of children for persecution, abuse or exploitation should be done by skilled child welfare professionals.
  3. In legal proceedings, children need trust, safety and time in order to disclose trauma and mistreatment. Unaccompanied children must have legal counsel to represent their best interests.
  4. Children are best cared for by their families in the most family-like, least restrictive setting.
  5. Programs must provide a safe and nurturing environment for unaccompanied children while also preparing children and their future caregivers for a successful transition to a supportive family setting.
  6. Every unaccompanied child should receive support and community-based case management following their reunification with family or supportive care.
  7. Children are best served when government agencies and their partners incorporate principles of accountability, collaboration, information sharing, best practices documentation, evaluation and quality improvement.

The report also highlights various protection gaps in the systems serving unaccompanied children, including:

  • Flawed screening processes at the border, which exclude many children from protection on the basis of nationality rather than individual circumstances;
  • The use of inappropriate holding and institutional facilities both at the border and upon subsequent transfer;
  • Weaknesses in the system of placement, reunification and follow-up that fail to fully ensure children’s safety;
  • The clear lack of legal representation for children (despite heroic volunteer efforts); and
  • Budget-driven imperatives to fast-track procedures for children.

The U.S. government and its agencies must not lose sight of their legal, moral, and ethical responsibility to keep vulnerable children safe from harm. Our nation must continue its proud tradition of extending protection to those who seek refuge on our shores. It is time to stop giving into passing financial, political, and institutional pressures—with the lives of children at stake—and instead to commit to a consistent principled approach to the care and custody of unaccompanied migrant children.

Please read and share the full report, which is available to download at LIRS.org/crossroads. In the meantime, join us in taking action through the LIRS Action Center to encourage your elected representatives to protect children and all vulnerable people seeking safety in the United States.

‘My First Citizenship’ A Refugee’s Journey from Statelessness to Advocating on Capitol Hill

Refugee and migrant leaders training for advocacy.
Participants at the 2015 Migrant and Refugee Academy during a training session.

This week, I want to share this profile of a new American, Uma Mishra, who can proudly celebrate her ability to contribute to society through the right to vote and actively participate in the larger community.

To Uma, the importance of becoming a citizen of the United States lies in having a say in the way her country is run. As a participant in the 2015 LIRS Migrant and Refugee Leadership Academy, Uma honed leadership skills that she can use in mobilizing her community to become more welcoming of immigrants and all the gifts they bring.

In today’s post, Uma shares her inspiring story and her views on the value that migrants and refugees bring to our country. Furthermore, Uma’s story shows us the peace that a sense of belonging brings to new Americans.

I was born in Chirang, Bhutan in 1973. In 1992, the Bhutanese government forced Nepalese families out of the country because they feared that we were taking away resources and were becoming the majority in the country. Some were forced to flee Bhutan, but others were fined or imprisoned.  Many villagers were kidnapped and tortured. Along with other families, my family was lucky enough to survive the journey from Bhutan to Nepal 23 years ago.

My family and I lived in one of the seven refugee camps in Nepal. After 18 years of hard labor in the camp, an opportunity for resettlement brought hope into my life. My family and I applied to resettle in the United States to work for a better life than we had in Nepal. In 2008, our American life began in Chicago. With a limited amount of English, I experienced many challenges. I had some hard times but thinking about how my children have a better opportunity for success than in Nepal made me feel better.

Bhutanese refugee who became a US citizen.
Uma Mishra

Before I became a citizen of the United States, I felt like an outsider in this country. This is my first citizenship in my life, which means a lot to me because I can now be a part of a big community. Also, it means that I have a say in how the country is run. The 2015 LIRS Migrant and Refugee Leadership Academy has helped me to better understand my community as a whole. I have learned many skills about being a community leader. Furthermore, this Academy has helped me to realize my personal goals that I want to achieve as a Bhutanese leader.

My experiences in Nepal are very similar to the experiences undocumented immigrants have in the United States. We kept our identification hidden and were very careful and aware when traveling throughout the country.

Here in the United States, undocumented immigrants have more difficulties because the law in this country is stricter than it was in Nepal. I believe that every immigrant, whether they are documented or not, have a right to become a citizen. Every immigrant is here because they want a better future. Some come for protection and others for opportunities. Once the United States sees that we are a good addition to the American community, they will realize that we have a lot to offer.

In over 75 years of experience coming alongside and welcoming refugees and migrants, we have met so many outstanding, dedicated, and talented individuals. Each new American is truly a gift to their community and to us all.

After 36 Years Without Legal Status, a New American Shares His Story

image (3)Every 4th of July, we are reminded that we are a nation of immigrants bound by fidelity to a set of ideals – democracy, freedom, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. So we are delighted that Tika Ram Dhungana, a former refugee from Bhutan is willing to share his new American story.

Tika currently lives in Pennsylvania with his wife, two little daughters, and parents. He recognizes the importance of citizenship in the United States after he spent thirty six years without any legal status. We are reminded of thousands of undocumented immigrants across the country who are currently living in fear of deportation and are separated from their families.

In today’s blog post, Tika shares his courageous journey and his hopes for immigration reform.

My parents were citizens of Bhutan, so I was a citizen by birth. Suddenly, the government of Bhutan adopted a policy of removing all southern Bhutanese who speak Nepali and follow a different culture. Most of our people were uneducated, illiterate, and couldn’t resist the ethnic cleansing policy. They were scared of torture (as many leaders were tortured and killed) and persecution which drove them to flee the country. My parents rented a cart to carry some of their basic belongings and we left the country at night, but I could see their eyes repeatedly staring back towards their motherland, especially their hard earned farm and house.

I had never imagined the refugee camps until I reached a crowded area with small plastic fences and plastic roof huts. My parents received plastic materials to build our temporary house. Initially, I cried for several days and nights and my parents comforted me stating that it was temporary, but we spent almost eighteen years in the refugee camp in Nepal.

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Migrant and Refugee Academy 2015 participants meeting officials in Washington, DC.

Although it was a tough life, I had an opportunity to go back to school in the refugee camp up to tenth grade. My parents worked as laborers in the neighboring village and my brother taught in a private school, which sponsored my higher education. I received my masters degree in chemistry in 2007, and our resettlement process started that year. I was resettled in the United States in 2010 with my parents and was married in 2011. Since I was the only one working in my family, my dream of going for a PhD collapsed. I tried to take some other courses, but I couldn’t because of the greater responsibilities of taking care of my elderly parents and my kids.

Initially, I was distressed for not getting a well-paying job and not getting a chance to complete my education, but slowly I started comparing myself to less fortunate people who are struggling to live. I started looking around and writing about my experiences, which later turned into a book, Satisfaction and Service: A Grand Source of Success. The land of opportunity, as we used to hear, had really became my reality when I was interviewed by Good Day PA in Harrisburg, PA. I am now living full of satisfaction with my elderly parents, my wife, and my two little daughters.

My family’s integration into life in the US was possible because of resettlement organizations like Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. They walk with many refugee and immigrant families as they create new lives in this country.

LIRS has become an integral part of the resettlement process, and more than that, they are the leading organization advocating for the refugees and immigrants. The 2015 Migrant and Refugee Leadership Academy strengthened my advocacy efforts. There are many refugees and migrants who are dying due to an epidemic of curable diseases or due to war. They are our brothers and sisters; they are human beings like us. They may be a great resources for this country if they are also given better opportunities like us. I believe that “service to all beings is service to God,” and appreciate LIRS for providing such a great leadership training which is a milestone for advocacy.

The United States accepts more refugees and immigrants than any other country in the world, welcoming individuals regardless of their religion or ethnicity. This is a country of love and peace. If we can share our story with the politicians, like we did during the Academy, the members of Congress may feel the pain people experience, and may be more willing to accept people who are in dire need of support.

Politicians are also human beings, and only human beings can feel the pain of other living beings. To make this more effective, we have to educate our people to become citizens because every citizen’s vote counts. Let’s all spend a few hours giving back to this country. Let this country feel that refugees and migrants are an integral part of this country’s development.

 

Highlights of the 2015 Migrant and Refugee Leadership Academy

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Last week, 70 former refugees and 15 migrants and Lutheran pastors convened for the 2015 Migrant and Refugee Leadership Academy: three days of intensive training, advocacy, and action planning in Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Participants came from 33 states representing 22 countries of origin.

Participants in the Migrant and Refugee Leadership Academy in Washington Wednesday, June 17, 2015.
Participants in the Migrant and Refugee Leadership Academy in Washington.

This year’s Academy marks an important expansion of the program to include migrants and begin the process of bridging their respective immigration experiences, finding strength in unity, and building a strong national network of leaders for structured and sustained grassroots engagement. Five alumni of last year’s Academy and four Lutheran pastors were actively engaged in the planning of this year’s event and served as trainers and facilitators.

Participants in the Migrant and Refugee Leadership Academy at the training day in Baltimore.
Participants in the Migrant and Refugee Leadership Academy at the training day in Baltimore.

The event began on Monday evening with an informal networking reception allowing the participants to meet LIRS staff members and their peers during the Academy. Excitement rang through the room as participants shared their stories and similar experiences with each other.

Tuesday was a full day of training on how to mobilize in communities, leadership skills, story-telling, and legislative advocacy that focused on effectively advocating for pro-migrant and refugee policies.

On Wednesday the participants traveled to Washington, D.C. to meet with their elected officials. The morning began at the National Press Club with inspiring words from Linda Hartke, LIRS President and CEO; Debra Joy Perez, Vice President for Research, Evaluation, and Learning, Annie E. Casey Foundation; Anne C. Richard, U. S. Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration; Shelly Pitterman, head of the Washington, D.C. office of UNHCR; Robert Carey, Director, Office of Refugee Resettlement; and Claudette Nshimiyama, a 2014 Academy participant and founder of Center for Refugee Advocacy and Support.

Eight Academy participants and four LIRS leaders met with White House officials to advocate for pro-migrant and refugee policies.
Eight Academy participants and four LIRS leaders met with White House officials to advocate for pro-migrant and refugee policies.
Senator Elizabeth Warren met with Academy participants from Massachusetts and Maine, along with Staci Coomer, LIRS VP for Development, Outreach, and Communications.
Senator Elizabeth Warren met with Academy participants from Massachusetts and Maine, along with Staci Coomer, LIRS VP for Development, Outreach, and Communications.

 

The afternoon continued with 85 visits with the participants’ Senators and Members of Congress, White House officials, and leadership offices including Minority Leader for the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, and Senate Democrat Leader, Harry Reid. Through the visits, participants experienced first-hand the impact of their personal stories as effective advocacy tools. LIRS staff and board members accompanied the participants to their meetings to provide support and were also inspired by listening to the participants’ stories.

Haval Khidher, a former refugee from Iraq currently living in Texas, reflects on his advocacy experience in Washington, D.C. “It was a great experience to meet with my members of Congress to ask for support for people impacted by ISIS. These people don’t have a voice. I am here to raise awareness and provide facts about the situation in my home country.”

The 2015 Academy ended by preparing the participants to take the Academy experience back to their communities and providing an overview of structures and resources available from LIRS to support their grassroots efforts.

Hari Koirala (left) and Pungu Oliko (right) met with Thomas Jipping, Chief  Judiciary Counsel for Senator Orrin Hatch of  Utah.
Hari Koirala (left) and Pungu Oliko (right) met with Thomas Jipping, Chief Judiciary Counsel for Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah.

Participant Hari Koirala, a former refugee from Bhutan, speaks for the group in expressing his appreciation for the opportunity:

Thank you very much for providing us with such a great opportunity to enhance our leadership skills. The Academy has not only helped recognize my leadership ability, but also promoted friendships and brotherhood among ethnically diverse participants. It served as a platform for refugee and migrant leaders to raise concerns, issues, and challenges faced by our community members to their respective leaders.

I was inspired by the leadership role taken by the planning committee members who delivered a clear and precise message and are helping to create a strong national network of leaders for a structured and sustained grassroots movement. As a participant of this Academy, it’s our responsibility to pass on the knowledge we received to the ongoing development of leaders in the communities where we live.

The training provided me with a greater understanding of what makes a true leader. The achievements shared by various participants were very motivational. These activities are imperative for the development of quality leaders.

 

‘Shafiq has the tools to change jobs or career paths': LIRS Releases Careers and Connections Guide for Employment Mentoring

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Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service has walked alongside migrants and refugees as they have built new lives in America since 1939. Through our work, LIRS and Lutherans across the country have learned to respond to specific, targeted needs and address the immediate challenges newcomers face. Too often, however, the complex emotional, social, civic, and economic factors that contribute to a comprehensive sense of well-being and self-sufficiency for newcomers are not fully addressed through traditional programming.

We’ve learned that employment-focused mentoring is one way that local communities and churches can stand with newcomers to overcome obstacles that inhibit economic success. This month, LIRS released Careers and Connections: A Program Planning and Implementation Guide for Employment Mentoring, a new tool for partners interested in starting a mentoring program and supporting new Americans along their journey of integration. It provides tested resources designed for local service providers, congregations, or community groups to create and grow a program.

The guide shares key practices for successful mentoring programs that LIRS identified through pilot projects with refugee resettlement partners in Georgia (Lutheran Services of Georgia), Nebraska (Lutheran Family Services of Nebraska), and Pennsylvania (Lutheran Children and Family Services of Pennsylvania). We recently caught up with a mentor and a mentee from one of our pilot sites, Lutheran Family Services of Nebraska. Here’s what Shafiqullah Jahish and Dan McCaster had to say about the program:

Shafiq: When I came here, I applied for dozens of jobs, but I never heard back from any of them and I didn’t know the reason. After working with Dan, I found out that the reason was my resume. I had an Afghan style 10-page resume and I am sure none of the employers ever looked at it. Dan helped me to make a professional resume. There were things that I have done in Afghanistan but I didn’t consider them as part of my skills and Dan was the one who pointed them out. Now I have a career goal ahead of me and I am working with Dan to set up some more informational interviews with individuals who work in the fields that I am interested in. 

I do have more confidence in talking to people about my life and career goals. I know what to ask during the informational interviews. I know better about jobs and office work here. As a result of his work, I now have a good job and I am successful in my job so far. We will be doing some mock interviews in the next two weeks to get to know with interview system here in [the] USA.

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Mentor Dan McCaster and Mentee Shafiqullah Jahish

Dan: I know Shafiq has the tools within him to change jobs or career paths- not just now, but throughout his life. One area that I really grew to appreciate in Shafiq (that I think is the probably the same for many who have resettled here) is his commitment and focus on owning his life. For example, Shafiq has a full-time job, is in college and has a wife and four kids. He could have said he was too busy to make time for this Careers and Connections program and it would have been a totally [legitimate] response. However, he added that into the mix of his life, and gave up some family and study time in the process, to better ensure his and his family’s success down the road. I’m impressed with the drive and the hard work immigrants are willing to put in to take ownership of their futures.

Mentorship programs help new Americans achieve a better career and expand their social ties in the long term, and mentoring provides the moral support, planning, and preparation to take the next step in the process. Mentor relationships also have benefits beyond the job search: many newcomers identify increased self-confidence, and mentors also report more global awareness and drive towards welcoming newcomers after participating in a mentoring partnership.

We thank the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod for its contributions to the pilot program, and the Calvin K. Kazanjian Economics Foundation for its grant that enabled us to formalize the concept into the Careers and Connections Guide. LIRS encourages resettlement agencies, community-based organizations, churches, and other places of worship, as well as state and national program leaders, to use the material to create and sustain mentoring programs that are easily incorporated into your existing work and also open new doors for volunteers, funders, and friends. Together, we can improve career opportunities, combat isolation, and strengthen our collective response to new neighbors.

Much of the Same: Conditions in Border Facilities Are Still Hurting Kids

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A potable water station in a CBP detention facility

Today, I share a post from Jessica Jones, LIRS Policy Counsel, on her recent visit to Customs and Border Protection (CBP) detention facilities in the Rio Grande Valley. These facilities were at the epicenter of last summer’s Central American refugee crisis and faced severe criticism for their treatment of children. Jessica reflects on the conditions she observed here:

The first week in June, I had the opportunity to visit Customs and Border Protection facilities in the Rio Grande Valley. The Rio Grande Valley is the same part of South Texas that experienced an unprecedented number of children and families fleeing from Central America and Mexico in 2014. What struck me the most as I walked around the Border Patrol station and the large Central Processing Center is that conditions remain largely the same.

When I first entered, we passed a holding cell filled with boys under the age of 14. They stood, silent testimonials, gazing out at us through a window, while tears dripped down the face of the smallest child. While children are now permitted to stay in a Border Patrol station for a much shorter period before being transferred to the large Central Processing Center for kids and families, the conditions remain incredibly jarring for children. It’s no wonder that children continuously tell LIRS partners that the worst experience in the journey was custody with Border Patrol.

Children are still locked into a holding cell, held closely with other children without the ability to lie down. Children still remain in the cells with nothing to play with or distract themselves with—no crayons, books or toys. Moms with kids were seen either sitting in a crowded holding cell or in front of a monitor clutching a phone to their ear as they try to balance their children on their laps. They can be seen speaking in hushed voices through the phone as they watch the Border Patrol agent on the monitor type away. It’s during this time that a mother is asked why she is leaving, the trauma she or her children may have experienced, and what fear of return she may have.

Once children and families are transferred to the Central Processing Center, conditions improve for children as far as access to showers, clothes, and food. Yet children are still locked up in cage-like pens in a huge warehouse. They still do not get blankets and instead only have the bright foil of the mylar blanket with which to comfort and warm themselves. Meanwhile, children and families are guarded by contractors in military-style uniforms with belts and holsters as they lie on mats. They lay waiting for whatever may be next in their journey to obtain safety in the U.S.

Children deserve better. Both Congress and the Administration can do much to strengthen the funding to CBP to ensure it includes adequate conditions and protections for children. It’s time that children’s security becomes an integral part of our border security. What does it say about our sense of national security if fails to protect the least of these— our children.

LIRS is committed to improving the conditions of children and families in CBP custody. We advocate with members of Congress and President Obama’s Administration, including the Department of Homeland Security, to safeguard the rights and human dignity of all children and families in CBP holding facilities at the border. If you were moved by Jessica’s post, please take a moment to learn more about children in detention and LIRS’s advocacy for children.

 

From a Refugee Camp of 60,000 to Washington, DC: LIRS Academy Participant Tells His Story

Rehani Mbula
Rehani Mbula

Rehani Mbula is a 2015 Migrant and Refugee Leadership Academy participant and former refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Rehani completed high school in just two years and now wants to use his education to help the migrants and refugees in his community.

This interview was conducted over email by LIRS Outreach Assistant, Janelle Fenyes.

Janelle Fenyes (JF): What drives you to advocate for migrants and refugees?

Rehani Mbula (RH): The reason why I decided to advocate for migrants and refugees is because I’m a refugee and I know what it means to be a refugee. I also recognize how migrants and refugees are struggling not only to receive their status as refugees but also with the challenges they face in their home countries. Once they move to the United States, they are hard workers, attend school, and contribute to our economy.

JF: Tell us about about your life journey.

RH: My family and I arrived in America with nothing but dreams and hope for a new beginning. What sets us, refugees, apart from people that grew up in America is our life experiences. I was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). I became a refugee at age five, running with my family from country to country escaping massacre, persecution, famine, and illnesses. The DRC has been in domestic and international wars with neighboring countries since 1996 with devastating consequences for its population. The war is the deadliest conflict since World War II, killing more than five million people and leaving half a million people as refugees.

The last camp where I lived in Tanzania had more than 60,000 refugees. Only a few refugees are granted legal status and protection. The United States government accepted our petition made through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and I landed in Texas on August 10, 2010. My family and I wanted to start a new life in the United States. I was counting the days until school started. Although I had an interrupted education, I had big dreams and I knew that only with education would it be possible to achieve my dreams. My dreams were not only about personal achievement that leads me to have a successful life but to help my country, fellow refugees, and others around me.

After I enrolled in school, I had many challenges, but I also had the support of the school staff, the teachers, and community volunteers who empowered and encouraged me to do my best in school. I worked two jobs to help support my family of 13. Countless hours of studying finally paid off. I finished high school in only two years through summer classes, credits by examination, and credit retrieval. I passed the state exit test and graduated Olive Wendell Holmes High School in June 2012. Then I completed my associate degree on May 9, 2015.

After graduating from high school, I have been a keynote speaker in many places like the Austin Symposium and different universities. I was featured in many different newspapers both nationally and locally. One of the famous newspapers articles is titled “Refugee gets a high school diploma in 2 years.” I’m currently working as a case manager with the Catholic Charities in Texas.

I want to finish this answer with the hope that my story will help you see refugees as human beings who want to leave our past suffering behind, rebuild our lives, and contribute to the country that embraced us as one of their own. Education is the driving force to make this possible. Education helps refugees restore our dignity.

JF: What do you like best about living in your hometown?

MB: Living in my hometown in the United States of America means everything to me. I may not have many words to answer this question because I can’t imagine how I feel while being in this town. I have been taken like a citizen while I haven’t yet applied.

JF: When you advocate for migrants and refugees on the advocacy day in Washington, D.C., what do you want to make sure and tell your legislators?

MB: First of all, I will thank the legislators for giving refugees and migrants the opportunity to live in the United States of America and start a new life. This process saves lives and contributes to America, not only economically, but also by creating a multicultural environment which helps Americans to experience more of the world without traveling abroad. Finally, I will ask my legislators to keep the doors open to other refugees and migrants.

‘Love is a Verb’ Sings Abraham Mwinda – Through Courageous Eyes

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The LIRS 2015 Migrant and Refugee Leadership Academy is an extraordinary event which brings together migrant and refugee leaders from across the country. Today’s featured artist, Abraham Mwinda, is one of the 90 participants who will attend the Academy, being held in Baltimore and Washington, DC later this month.

The Through Courageous Eyes blog series features migrant and refugee artists and is curated by Cecilia Pessoa, LIRS Communications Associate.

Abraham MwindaAbraham Mwinda is a former refugee from Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo who came to the United States via Nairobi, Kenya. He has now settled in Kentucky.

A self-described singer and songwriter, Abraham began writing songs at the age of seven and performing them publicly at 15. Writing and singing were ways he could express his thoughts more easily, which gave him the motivation to continue developing this passion.

In early 2014, Abraham began playing guitar, which he says helped him expand his audience. Since then, he has performed at various concerts, which are “mainly focused on sharing experiences with the public and promoting a culture of peace, love, and unity.” The lyrics he writes exemplify this culture as well. The song below, “Cold World,” asks “do we really have to go to war?” and concludes, “love is the way.”

Listen to the track “Cold World” from “In The Moment” Acoustic EP by Abraham Mwinda, recorded by Cole Eveland.

The first verse of “Cold World” reads:

This heart of mine, could be better but I guess that it’s doing just fine
Could this be a sign, that I was meant for more than what I perceive on my mind?
Somebody once told me, it’s a cold world that we living in
It’s been like that from the beginning
But I just can’t get myself to see, that this how it should be
And every night I go to bed, with a million questions in my head
Hoping that I would find some answers deep within

Abraham Mwinda Collage
Photos by Erika Litton Collage by Cecilia Pessoa

With such powerful messages of peace and hope, Abraham says his concerts have been referred to as “musical sermons.” Indeed, Abraham finds inspiration in his “beliefs, faith, and aspirations” as well as from his personal life experiences and the lives of people he has met.

Abraham’s full album, “In The Moment,” shares more of these powerful stories and messages in a relaxed acoustic afropop style. His track “Love is a Verb” stresses the importance of loving neighbors, but also acknowledges that “it takes courage to love, love is not cowardice.”

Abraham’s Facebook page shares the quote, “Never forget… even during your darkest moments, God still has a plan for you to shine bright. Don’t lose faith.” This talented musician has certainly used his talents with music and writing to shine brightly in the world.

Abraham Mwinda playing
Photo by Erika Litton

Find all the previous posts in the Through Courageous Eyes series.

Through Courageous Eyes features the artistic work of refugees and migrants. If you would like to showcase your artwork as part of the Through Courageous Eyes series, please contact Cecilia Pessoa at CPessoa@lirs.org.

Banner photo credit: Johanan Ottensooser

‘You Are Not Alone’ — LIRS Academy Participant Creates Welcome for Refugees in Utah

Ser Ehdoh Htoo
Ser EhDoh Htoo

LIRS’s upcoming Migrant and Refugee Leadership Academy is diverse: home countries, religions, and native languages vary. But despite these differences, their passion for serving their communities is notably consistent. This passion is evident in Ser EhDoh Htoo, an Academy participant and former refugee from Burma who now lives in Utah. Ser was a small child when he and his family were forced to flee Burma. He spent his childhood in a Thai refugee camp. Now that he has resettled to the United States, he can proudly say that he is the first person in his family to complete high school and attend college. He is known to his community as an inspiration for others.

Ser EhDoh Htoo writes:

I am a Karen refugee from Burma. I was born in a Karen state, but when I was a small child, my family was forced to flee Burma because of war and persecution. We found safety in the Thai refugee camp, Mae La. I spent my whole life in the refugee camp, so I do not know anything about my home country. All I know is it that it is not a safe place to live and there is war every day. I lived in the Mae La camp until I turned thirteen, in 2008. Then, my family resettled in the United States.

Life in a refugee camp is difficult. There is no freedom. Refugees can’t go outside the camp and the Thai police control everything. This causes stress and depression for many people. My mom knew that if we stayed in the refugee camp there would be no future for her family so she decided to move us to the United States.

The most difficult cultural barriers I faced in United States were going to the doctor’s office, learning to drive a car, and living in Western-style houses. I did not speak English and knew nearly nothing about the culture and laws of this country. In the United States, my family lived in many states because my mom couldn’t find a job because she doesn’t speak English. Even though she works hard, there is not enough money to support our family because all the money she earns pays for the rent.

I am the first person in my family’s generation to complete high school and have the opportunity to attend college. That was the happiest moment for my family and me. By attending college I want to be good example to my younger sister and other Karen people.

A common challenge in our community is overcoming the language barrier. Many Karen senior adults have been living in the United States for more than five years but are unable to receive U.S. citizenship because of the difficulty in learning English. These are challenges that need to be addressed in our community.

I want to let my people know that they are not alone. We all are facing the same challenges and we need to turn our challenges into opportunities. My passion is to help the Karen people, especially those struggling to learn English. I know I don’t have the opportunity to help my people who are suffering in Burma but if I can help those in United States, I will feel like I’m making some contributions and giving back.

As an AmeriCorps VISTA, I work for the refugee services office in Utah to help the Karen Community of Utah (KCU). My goal is to help all Karen people feel a real sense of belonging in the United States and to become contributing members of their communities. I have worked with the KCU programs to build community cohesion and help newly resettled Karen refugees integrate with the larger mainstream community. Creating programs and activities for youth and parents to help them feel connected is one step in building this community cohesion. Bridging such connections also helps reduce school dropouts and drug and alcohol abuse.

I believe that the LIRS Migrant and Refugee Leadership Academy is a powerful tool that will help me more effectively serve my community. At the LIRS Academy, I am expecting to gain more knowledge about the government system and programs that are beneficial to the community. In addition, I hope to connect with local resources or partners that I can refer people to. Overall, I hope this LIRS program will build my skills that could be, in return, a huge benefit to my community.