Today, I’m pleased to bring you an interview with Selena Sujoldzic, a lawyer, LIRS World Refugee Day Academy 2014 participant, and former refugee. In this interview, Selena discusses the newly released First Steps: An LIRS Guide for Refugees, Asylum Seekers, and Migrants Released from Detention. Selena describes how First Steps will start to take away the uncertainty, fear, and inability to trust that many former refugees feel. This interview was conducted over email by Clarissa Perkins, LIRS Marketing Project Manager.
Clarissa Perkins (CP): As a former refugee and a lawyer, you have a unique perspective on the obstacles new Americans must navigate in the United States. What were the biggest challenges you faced when rebuilding your life here in the United States?
Selena Sujoldzic (SS): The biggest challenges I faced were within myself. Yes, of course, there were many obstacles and challenges I faced that were caused by others, but I let those other people become an obstacle and a challenge. During that time, it was a constant battle I fought within myself to figure out how to continue being myself: to not let the environment change who I am, to not let those exact obstacles and challenges change the core of my heart. As a refugee, we come from a place of pain, a place of darkness, a place we couldn’t possibly call home anymore. But how do we make this new place a home without losing ourselves in it? That was certainly a challenge for me that took many years to overcome. Keep in mind that I was 13 at the time and I didn’t have the same challenges as my parents. In a way, I was lucky to not have to deal with the same challenges as the “grown-ups,” but at the same time, it left me a great deal of time to think about my past and it wasn’t healthy. But I DID overcome it, and that’s the lesson.
CP: As a lawyer, what do you see as the main challenges other new Americans face?
SS: Uncertainty. There is so much uncertainty in their eyes, so much fear about their future. They don’t know if they will make it, they don’t know if they are really, truly safe, they don’t know can they trust again and finally, they don’t know if they will be accepted. Acceptance is extremely important to refugees, whether they admit it or not. Refugees have been persecuted and forced out of their own countries for being different, and coming to America just to face the same unacceptance in a different form is almost unbearable. Therefore, at times, refugees will do what they need to do to feel accepted by the community. For instance, due to historically negative connotation associated with the word “refugee” and how the community where I resettled looked at “refugees,” I disassociated myself from anyone who was a refugee. There weren’t many, but I wanted to blend in as much as possible, not be different. I am not proud of that, but it’s what my mind was telling me to do just so I could be accepted and feel at home. That’s where my challenge came in of trying not to lose myself and not succumb to the community’s expectations of who I should be. Today, I do everything I can just to BE different.
CP: How does First Steps help new Americans overcome these challenges?
SS: First Steps is a guide that tells new Americans “yes, you will make it, my friend.” It’s a guide that will start to take away from that uncertainty, from that fear, from that inability to trust again. Guiding refugees to the ways of this country and its culture will help them be more familiar with it, and therefore have a feeling of being accepted sooner, rather than learning the ways through someone making fun of them and making them feel like an outsider. Something as small as not knowing the phone system and how to operate it can make a person, who is already going through many emotional and mental transitions, feel less intelligent, less educated, and less worthy than someone who was born here. It may sound ridiculous to someone who hasn’t been through it, but I can be certain that every refugee can relate in one way or another.
CP: Do you have any advice for new Americans as they start their lives here?
SS: Please don’t ever forget who you are. You will endure heartache in this process of resettling; you will endure stress; you will be disappointed; you will want to cry or be angry; you will be made to feel less intelligent or educated because you are not familiar with the culture or because you have an accent; and you may even want to give up. People will want to change you and mold you into their idea of an American. People who come from the same place as you will be disappointed in you if you start to make America your home, yet people born in America will be disappointed if you don’t… you will certainly be tested. But the only true test you need to pass is to stay true to yourself. Trust in your own truth and I can promise you, you will bypass all of the things I listed above and you will not only come out on top, but even higher than anyone who wanted to stop you. Even if you get to a point where you may not know anymore who you are because of the changes, remember that at least you have the strength to figure it out and you have the freedom in this country to figure it out. After all, look how far you have already made it just by trusting in who you are. There is no stopping you now, my friend.
Visit lirs.org/firststeps to download and learn more about First Steps. First Steps is available as a PDF, EPUB, and is downloadable to Kindle. Status specific supplements for asylum seekers and lawful permanent residents are also available. First Steps will be available in Spanish shortly.