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.

‘I Don’t Have to be in South Sudan to Bring Change’ — A Former Lost Boy on Achieving Peace

Mayom Bol Achuk
Mayom Bol Achuk

As LIRS’s Migrant and Refugee Leadership Academy approaches, I am excited to share the experiences of some of the courageous new Americans that will be participating in the Academy. Mayom Bol Achuk, a former refugee from South Sudan who now lives in Maryland, will be one of these participants. In today’s post, Mayom writes how he has become an “agent for change” for others who are forced from their homes.

Mayom Bol Achuk writes:

I am part of the most recently resettled refugee groups known as Lost Boys of Sudan in America, a Dinka by tribe, and now a South Sudanese-American by nationality. I was born and raised, as were many boys of my age, to tend cattle and practice backyard hunting. Although modern education was alien to the culture I was brought up in, life was very interesting and fully enjoyable. When I was four years old, my family embraced Christianity and abandoned their ancestral gods.

In 1986, I started my education at my church school where I learned letters in my native language of the Dinka tribe. This church school was only meant for learning how to read the Bible in the Dinka language. There was no paper or chalk but only charcoal or small sticks that were used on animal skins or the dirt. After we were forced to flee Sudan in December of 1987, we went to a refugee camp in Ethiopia, where we started our classes in English, Arabic, and mathematics. Educational supplies were scant. Two pupils shared one exercise book and pencil: each was split, and one eraser was shared.

In the Kenyan Kakuma refugee camp, the situation changed and we studied six additional subjects that were completely new to us. I started in third grade and reached twelfth grade before I finally left to resettle in the United States. In America, I thought I would continue high school but was told that I needed to go to college instead of high school since I was of college age. However, to meet the requirements for college admission, I had to take a GED exam. After I passed my GED exam I went to Grand Rapids Community College for my associate degree. After graduation, I transferred to Calvin College for another two years for my bachelor’s degree. I attended Liberty University for another two years of graduate studies. Right after Liberty University, I went to Eastern University for another graduate program before relocating back to South Sudan to help a nation and peacebuilding process and the fledging educational system.

I’ve worked hard since I came to the United States. I have been studying and often working two to three jobs to support myself, my family members in South Sudan, as well as help support the Sudanese community in America. While in South Sudan, I was working as a Joint Development Fund Coordinator for Borlaug Institute for International Agriculture at Dr. John Garang Memorial University of Science and Technology. Unfortunately, I was not aware that the newly established government of South Sudan would eventually turn against the people and fail to deliver the much-awaited democratic system of governance there. Unequivocally, I opted to leave the country again due to fear for my life after being threatened five times at gunpoint in Juba, the capital city. I was evacuated back to the United States due to the current civil war in the newly independent Republic of South Sudan and have now decided to reside in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area.

Since I can’t go back home under the current leadership, I am still part of the nation-building process and change for good governance in South Sudan. I hope change will come to South Sudan as soon as the current generation of former rebel commanders and old guards, who are now the national ministers, are gone.

In deciding to attend this training [LIRS Migrant and Refugee Leadership Academy], I realized that I don’t have to be in South Sudan to bring change, solve my people’s problems, or advocate for change in the government of South Sudan. I can help form strong communities of Sudanese people in the areas where they have relocated. My goal for advocacy is to reduce or stop any government policy that creates another generation of child soldiers and increases refugee populations worldwide. I have dedicated myself to help other refugees feel welcomed in this great land of opportunity,  just as I was welcomed. I will continue to constructively fight for the human rights of those who are still held hostage in oppressive political systems. I am not only honored to be selected as a participant in this Leadership Academy but want to be equipped as an agent of change for those who are currently in my previous situation.

How the LIRS Academy Reignited My Passion to Fight for Refugee and Migrant Rights — Academy Graduate Shares Her Story

Selena Sujoldzic
Selena Sujoldzic

LIRS’s 2015 LIRS Migrant and Refugee Leadership Academy is an extraordinary event which brings together migrant and refugee leaders from across the country. The Academy is supported by a planning committee of five Academy alumni. The planning committee advises on the Academy’s sessions and direction, assists in recruiting and vetting Academy participants, and facilitates training sessions during the event. In today’s post, one planning committee member, Selena Sujoldzic, a former refugee resettled by LIRS, tells how the Academy impacted her life and her hopes for this year’s participants.

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

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

Selena Sujoldzic (SS): I am a former refugee myself. Even though it has been 20 years since LIRS helped my family and me resettle, I still remember the days when I was a 12-year-old girl without a voice loud enough to be heard. What inspires me today to advocate is exactly that memory. I want to be someone’s voice who doesn’t feel like they are being heard. I dealt with not having my story told for so long, but now I am capable and willing to lift someone else who needs lifting, to be someone’s warrior who is fighting against odds, and most importantly, to show new Americans they are worth fighting for. If I make a difference in just one person’s life, my energy and time was well spent.

JF: Tell us your reflections of the Academy last year. How has it impacted your advocacy for migrant and refugee rights?

SS: My participation in the Academy last year opened up a whole new world for me. It not only made me look back on my own journey and remember every goal reached and how it was reached, but it reignited that passion that was always within me to fight for refugee and migrant rights. It built my confidence in telling my story and it showed me how much impact and difference I can make by sharing my experience. I started building a network of people that share those experiences and gave me the opportunity to speak to government representatives who have the power to make the changes for which we are fighting. The Academy also provided me with tools to take back to my community and apply to my advocacy efforts on the local level. We have to take what we learn at the Academy back to our own neighborhoods and start with the change there.

JF: What motivated you to join the planning committee?

SS: I wanted the opportunity to offer what I have learned to other refugees and migrants who need to hear the experiences of other former refugees and migrants. One of many things I learned since becoming involved with LIRS is that almost all organizations who work with refugees and migrants wish to learn directly from us. Books, resources, statistics, and studies cannot replace knowledge gained by listening to former refugees or migrants’ personal experiences and ideas. I wanted the opportunity to participate in developing such an important event as this Academy in hope of doing for participants what the Academy did for me: reignite the passion for the cause.

JF: What do you see as the future of the Academy?

SS: The Academy will most certainly continue to grow each year. It will continue to train and shape individuals into strong leaders in this country. It will continue to serve as a tool for former refugees and migrants who want to make a positive difference in this country. The Academy is designed to gather diverse individuals together to emerge as leaders and individuals with a louder voice, more unified. The Academy will undoubtedly continue to do that for many years to come.

JF: What advice do you have for participants in this year’s Academy?

SS: Soak in every single moment of the Academy. This is your time. This is your moment. This is where you get to tell your story and where you will be heard. You will have the opportunity to speak to this country’s representatives, so make it count. Ask questions and take what you learn and make the changes you have been thinking and talking about.

Use this opportunity to reflect on your journey and how you can use that journey to help someone who was in your position. Use the tools offered to learn how to make an impact on a larger scale with government officials. Use the Academy to meet individuals who may become life-long friends after this trip. The Academy is designed for educational purposes, but try to see it as a personal victory as well: you are here.

You may still be hesitant about sharing your experiences, telling your story, or remembering some of the details of your past, but if you don’t go into this Academy with an open mind and keep an open mind, you are only robbing yourself of an experience that could make a change within you. After all, the change must start with you, with us, first.

From Paying Guerrillas’ Ransoms to Capitol Hill — LIRS Academy Participant Shares Her Courageous Journey

Martha Rodriquez
Martha Jeannette Rodriquez

LIRS’s Migrant and Refugee Leadership Academy brings together new Americans from across the country to gain leadership skills and share their stories with Congress on Capitol Hill. I’m proud to announce that this is the first year migrants without refugee status are participating in our academy. One of these non-refugee participants is Martha Jeannette Rodriquez, originally from Colombia and now a resident of Ohio. In today’s blog post, Martha shares how her challenging journey has inspired her to give back to others and what she plans to tell her representatives on Capitol Hill.

Martha writes:

Since I’ve been in the United States, I’ve understood that God pushed me to come to this country. I’ve understood that God closed the doors in my country, Colombia, and opened the doors in this country for a mission or purpose. I had to pass through many difficult situations in my country and fight a lot of challenges here in order to learn how to help migrants and refugees. Because I suffered, I developed empathy for the migrant community and a deep desire to help them succeed in this country that I now call my own. I understand this is what God wants me to do: to help the migrants that suffered persecution, extortion, and mistreatments in their countries. To help them grow, flourish, and succeed as I did here in their new country, the United States of America.

Facing extortion and threats in Colombia

The changes in my life started 16 years ago when my father-in-law was kidnapped by guerillas and my former husband’s boss was murdered. We sold our house in an effort to pay the ransom for my father-in-law. My former spouse went to different isolated places in the mountains to speak with the extortionists by radio, but these people didn’t give us proof that they had my father-in-law.

We decided to move in with my mom and start a new life, but we lost all our capital. So we moved again to another town. While living there, we started to suffer other problems. We owned a restaurant but it failed and guerrillas started to follow us again. They threatened us, stating something would happen to our children if we didn’t give them money. I cried and prayed a lot to God asking for His protection and help.

During this time, my sister was living in the United States. She offered to adopt two of my five children. I didn’t accept. My sister suggested that I come and register two of my girls in school. She paid for our airplane tickets and we were off to the United States, leaving my other children behind with my husband and my mom.

Starting anew in the United States

When I was here, I started working in the home of a Hispanic family making money to send back to Colombia. Even though I had my sister here, I felt alone. I didn’t know English so I couldn’t be a part of their conversations with her husband or friends. After five months, my former spouse came to the United States and he applied for asylum. We received asylum on June 19, 2004, one day before my visa expired thereby giving me the opportunity to ask for the reunification of my family. My other three children came to the United States in December 2005 as a miracle from God! Living in Dayton, Ohio I felt happy, safe, loved and with so many opportunities for my children and me to improve our lives. I believed nothing was impossible.

Even though I was in my 40s at the time, I had to raise my children by myself because I divorced. I had to literally be born again! Everything looked so scary and difficult: I didn’t know the language, I didn’t know the culture, or the rules, and I had to work at things that I never did before in my life. I could not work using my studies in psychology that I earned in Colombia. I had to find ways to earn a living using my hard work and my mind. I rebuilt my life from the ground up. I earned my degree in Art Studies and my children graduated school and went on to college. I am blessed with grandchildren and even managed to buy my own home. I am currently working on the Human Relations Council of the City of Dayton in the Welcome Dayton program which gives me an opportunity to work with refugees and migrants.

The LIRS Academy will develop my skills

The LIRS Academy will provide knowledge about immigration issues and develop my leadership skills to help migrants and refugees with their needs. It is my desire to help these individuals achieve their goals and have stability in their life.

I would like legislators to give opportunities to migrants and refugees to work and develop their knowledge and skills in order to improve their lives and help the United States economy. If migrants and refugees have the ability to use their skills and knowledge in their local community, the economic benefits could have a positive ripple effect by increasing tax revenue and wealth at the local, regional, state, and national levels. I want to also advocate for the positive treatment of immigrants from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Mexico. These are a lost culture of people who are suffering persecution and extortion while trying to obtain asylum or refugee status in the United States.

I was given the opportunity to succeed through hard work, determination, and education. I am ready, willing, and able to help those who desire the same opportunities when they arrive on our shores. I want to lead others to be a positive part of society in the land of the free and the home of the brave: the United States.