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.
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.
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.
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.
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.