Resettled Refugees Meet With Congress, Share Personal Experiences

By Rachel Nusbaum,

Norah Bagirinka was resettled from Rwanda to the United States in 2005. Last week, she traveled all the way from Columbus, Ohio to meet with her federal representatives in Washington, D.C. and offer her unique perspective on the challenges and opportunities facing refugees and asylum seekers.

She didn’t have to walk the halls of Congress alone, however. She was joined by Hari Niroula, a Bhutanese refugee resettled in 2008 who now lives in nearby Blacklick, Ohio, and by members of the HIAS team, including Yvonne Winters, who volunteered to spend the day with them.

Norah and Hari were there as delegates taking part in the Refugee Congress, which brought refugees, asylum seekers and stateless persons from each of the 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia together for a chance to share their own stories and help to inform policy makers about the realities and challenges of fleeing persecution and restarting life in a new land.

The delegates were there to talk about policy. They know from personal experience how important it is to have support when you first arrive in a new country, how many complex, unfamiliar systems there are to navigate without past experience to rely on. But their presence also spoke to something else. Having received  a little bit of help, the refugee congress delegates had gone on to do wonderful things in their communities.

Some of the delegates to Refugee Congress were quite young. Shambel Zeru, who flew in from Colorado, is still in high school.

After fleeing Eritrea, Shambel was resettled to the U.S. in 2013. He now calls Aurora home, and hopes to attend the University of Colorado Denver. In the meantime, he is training to be an EMT. It's one more way he can help people.

Although the delegates were diverse in a number of ways—age, occupation, country of origin—they shared many of the same goals for the day, as well as some key concerns.

“I’m here to advocate for the youth, particularly,” Shambel said. He expressed alarm over what he hears people saying about refugees these days—especially on social media. “They think we don’t contribute or that we’re bad people. So that’s why we’ve got to tell our story,” Shambel said, clearly pained by some of the things he has heard.

“We just came here to be part of your family—we don’t want to take your jobs or your legacy,” he said.

The Refugee Congress was an opportunity to educate legislators and their staff not only about the issues refugees encounter, but also the important contributions refugees are making everyday in their respective communities.

After being granted protection in the United States, Norah, a survivor of the Rwandan genocide, founded her own nonprofit called, Refugee Women in Action,. to assist  refugees and other new arrivals.

“I wanted to build a bridge between the women and the community,” Norah told a congressional staffer she met with. She’s recruited students to help in her effort, and is eager to start a mentorship program for youth in Columbus.

After she was granted asylum here she was also able to reunite with her children. “My older son is a small business owner, he has a trucking business, and the younger one is finishing his degree in nursing,” she shared, with pride.  

For his part, Hari is very engaged with the Bhutanese community in Ohio. He sees people getting naturalized, becoming citizens and preparing to vote. He clearly takes great pride in this.

“I own my own home and I pay taxes to my government,” Hari says. “Some people say refugees are not good, but I support refugees,” Hari said during a meeting with congressional staff as part of refugee congress. “We’ve been doing good things for Columbus and for the state of Ohio.”

This was something that came up over and over again. The refugees and asylees who had come to Washington for Refugee Congress all volunteered, unprompted, their concerns about the tone of the public conversation surrounding refugees. About the kinds of things they heard said about, and to, refugees.

“We had to leave everything. All our property. Our land, our house, our cattle,” said Hari. “We fled Bhutan on foot. And then life in the refugee camp was very hard — many people died from a lack of sanitation. The water there was very bad.”

Hari, like so many refugees and asylees, is full of gratitude towards the United States and he is not shy about saying so. “I would like to thank the U.S. government for opening the door to us through resettlement, after other countries didn’t,” he said in his meetings. He is baffled as to why people would be afraid of someone like him. He sees, instead, people with much to contribute to their new community.

“As a refugee, you are so grateful for the chance to start over. Of course they want to give back to the country that had offered them safety when their own country was too dangerous.”

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