Last week, refugee leaders from across the U.S. were in Washington, D.C. to attend Refugee Council USA’s annual Advocacy Days, a three-day convening of workshops and meetings with members of Congress to promote pro-refugee legislation and other policies in support of all forcibly displaced people seeking safety in the U.S.
Held in person for the first time in three years, Advocacy Days provides refugee advocates the opportunity to share the challenges facing their communities and have meaningful conversations about how to include refugee voices when designing solutions to those challenges.
We spoke to five refugees about the challenges facing their community and how they see refugees shaping solutions.
Elvina Htoo, resettled refugee from Myanmar
“The most significant challenge is language barriers when resettling in a new home country,” shares Elvina Htoo, refugee student advocate in Denver and Refugee Congress delegate for the state of Colorado.
“Communication is vital to building understanding, navigating systems and resources and learning the new culture,” she continues.
According to Elvina, for some adult refugee newcomers, the pressure to gain employment and become economically self-reliant impacts their ability to access language resources or continue to build English language skills.
“Eliminating or bridging language barriers will allow refugees to navigate other barriers more smoothly because they can advocate for their own needs.”
Madap Sharma, resettled refugee from Bhutan
“There are educated folks and professionals [who are resettled] and it is very difficult for those degrees and credentials to be transferred into the United States,” says Madap Sharma, Refugee Site Director, Lutheran Children and Family Service, Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Madap and his family fled Bhutan in the early 1990s and lived as refugees in Nepal for nearly two decades. During that time, Madap earned a bachelor's and master’s degree and taught at a local university in Nepal.
“In my own case, it took me three years [once resettled in the U.S.] to understand that my educational transcripts have any value.”
According to Madap, solutions start with lifting more refugee voices and encouraging participation in local and national politics.
“Every story has life in it and the more refugee stories that are incorporated the better,” Madap shares. “We need to encourage more refugees to participate in elections, voting and civic engagement.”
Sara Louis-Ayo, resettled refugee from South Sudan
“The biggest challenge facing refugees is arriving to this country and not having enough resources,” shares Sara Louis-Ayo. Sara joined Advocacy Days representing the Louisiana Organization for Refugees and Immigrants (LORI), an organization founded and led by refugees to help newcomers in Louisiana transition to their new homes in the U.S.
To bridge the need gap facing the resettled community, Sara notes the importance of grassroots-led efforts like LORI. “Refugees created LORI so they could help lessen the burden of resettling to the United States.”
For Sara, refugee representation is key to finding equitable solutions. “Refugees need to be at the table,” says Sara. “Give us [refugees] the time to express ourselves, hear us and then we kind find better solutions.”
Biar Kuek, resettled refugee from South Sudan
Biar Kuek, former Refugee Congress delegate from Nevada and current USA for UNHCR board member is a longtime advocate for a robust resettlement program and is passionate about the need to rebuild the system and increase resettlement numbers to help alleviate the needs of refugees around the world.
“We need to be resettling more refugees to give them an opportunity for a better life,” Biar shares.
According to Biar, refugee voices and those with lived experience are key to meeting the challenges facing both the refugee and resettlement communities.
“Refugee voices like mine need to be part of the decision-making… [and] having people like myself at the table, we will be able to make decisions that are going to help refugees.”
Emma Yaaka, resettled refugee from Uganda
Emma Yakka is a medical case manager for resettled refugees in Chicago, Illinois and the founder and host of Word Out, a refugee-led storytelling and advocacy project. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Emma saw that a trusted source of information about COVID-19 was lacking in his community.
“It was very hard for refugees to access information for them to use to protect themselves against COVID-19,” shares Emma.
To meet this challenge, Emma launched Word Out and started producing short videos that broke down the risks of COVID-19 and the best practices of how to protect oneself.
“The only way to reach people with information is by creating a platform that they can access on their phones.”
The videos were posted on the Word Out YouTube page and circulated through resettled refugee What’s App and Facebook groups.
In the last year, Word Out has shifted focus to tackle other challenges facing the resettlement community and offers videos on how to find a job, the importance of including refugee voices in building solutions and even content on nutrition.
How can you help?
USA for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, supports the full journey of refugees. Not only do our donors help refugees in their greatest time of need, but their support builds awareness for resettled refugees living in the U.S. With your help, more refugees will have the opportunity to build a peaceful life and have a chance for a brighter future.