Despite incredible challenges, resettled refugees around the country stepped up in 2020 and showed us how to uplift and support those who needed it most. From making masks to protect frontline healthcare workers to helping everyone have access to voting resources, resettled refugees in the United States have inspired us all year.
Check out six stories from 2020 that gave us hope and motivated us to press on:
Fatima Dirie is the Refugee Liaison for the Mayor’s office in Salt Lake City. Her job centers around helping the city’s refugees feel welcome, and helping them access the resources they need to begin rebuilding their lives.
“This program emphasizes integration, and with integration, there's a two-way system – you can learn from refugees and refugees can also learn from you,” Fatima shared. She drew on her own experiences as a young resettled refugee and wants to make sure no one feels isolated the way that she did. “I remember having to miss school to go to doctors’ appointments with my aunts and my parents, to help with job applications and to go with them on job interviews.”
Fatima’s work has even breathed new life into the Know Your Neighbor volunteer program, which connects hundreds of Salt Lake City volunteers with refugee families. “Our goal is to make sure that every refugee is connected to an American friend, and that they don't feel isolated, they're a part of the community.”
Fatima Mirzakhail and GirlForward
GirlForward is a millennial-women led organization that offers a safe community for girls who have been forcibly displaced and are now facing a new life in the United States. Many of these young women have escaped war, violence and persecution, and now must rebuild their lives in a new school and in a place with an unfamiliar language.
Nineteen-year-old Fatima Mirzakhail was a mentee in Austin’s GirlForward Program. Her family fled Afghanistan, and now she’s a young adult living in Texas. “[At GirlForward] I finally found this light that I was looking for,” Fatima explained. “GirlForward was something that I'd been always wishing to have in my life.”
GirlForward not only helped her connect with other girls her own age, but it also gave her a safe space to practice her English and build confidence. Now, she’s ready to take on the next phase of her life. She’s on GirlForward’s advisory board, and she’s looking at a variety of career options. Whether Fatima decides to become a counselor or run for office, the foundation she built with GirlForward will always be there to support her.
Wandaka and New Leaf Agriculture
When Wandaka fled the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), he left behind his home and a passion. His family had lived in the countryside in the DRC where, according to Wandaka, everybody farmed. “When I was very young my mom would take me with her farming and I would just repeat what she did. And at the age of five or six, she gave me a small plot where I grew green onions and sweet potatoes.”
Now, in the United States, Wandaka has found an opportunity to rekindle his passion for farming. With the help of New Leaf Agriculture, a nonprofit social enterprise of the Multicultural Refugee Coalition, he is able to use his skills and knowledge for farming to help others in his community. New Leaf Agriculture helps train refugee farm apprentices for paid agricultural work, and Wandaka is now an Assistant Farm Manager.
During the coronavirus pandemic, New Leaf Agriculture has been an essential food service in Texas. “Feeding my Austin community during this hard time fills my heart with joy,” said Wandaka. “I'm happy to be in the position of impacting people.”
Maria and Open Arms Studio
Another social enterprise of the Multicultural Refugee Coalition is Open Arms Studio. They’re a nonprofit organization that blends skills-based education with social entrepreneurship to help resettled refugees find dignified and fair-wage work in Texas. Maria, a former refugee from Myanmar, has been able to grow and develop her skills as a seamstress under Open Arms Studio’s guidance.
During three years at Open Arms, Maria worked her way up to sewing manager. However, with the coronavirus pandemic closing many businesses, the studio turned its attention away from creating clothing and towards another essential accessory: masks.
While working from home, Maria leads a team of seamstresses who have been creating masks for frontline healthcare workers. “I'm grateful to be safe at home with family, while at the same time helping others in need.”
“Exercising my right, my responsibility, and my duty as a citizen — that's why I'm voting. I'm not someone who doesn't care. No. I really care and I want to make my community better,” shared Fiston, a former refugee and first-time voter in the 2020 presidential election.
Fiston and his family were forced to flee the DRC when he was only 13 years old. Now, he’s a U.S. citizen and he works every day to improve his community. He’s not only passionate about voting, but he is also a college senior at the University of Utah, and he’s the founder of Umoja Generation, a nonprofit in Salt Lake City that helps connect newly resettled refugee children with life skills mentors.
“When I resettled here all I wanted to do was go to school and to contribute to my community,” Fiston said. “There are a lot of resources in Salt Lake City but if you don't have the proper guidance, it is hard. But if you have proper guidance, like a mentor, who can show you, who has been through it themselves, you're going to make it.”
Basma is a former Iraqi refugee who became a U.S. citizen in 2016. Since resettling, Basma has been a powerful advocate for refugees in the United States and has worked hard to ensure fair access to voter resources for those in her community.
“After that first public speaking event, some media reached out and they told me that my story had really made a difference. That moment made me feel that [refugee] voices can make a difference and we should not stop.”
When she voted for the first time in 2018, she organized transportation and volunteers to help new voters in her community to the polls. She understands how complex the U.S. voting system can be for someone unfamiliar, and wants to ensure that everyone has a fair and equal chance to make their voice heard.
In 2020, Basma has continued her advocacy work. From empowering refugee voices through her nonprofit, WeaveTales, to working with Refugee Congress as the Florida delegate, Basma works every day to uplift refugees in her community and around the country.
How to turn your inspiration into action…
The resettled refugees we’ve met this year have been leaders not only in their communities but also in responding to the coronavirus pandemic and protecting the most vulnerable. You can join these inspiring individuals and do your part to protect refugees this winter. By making a gift now, you can help refugee families stay warm and safe through the harsh winter months, and protect them on their journey to safety.