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June 19, 2022

World Refugee Day: Sisters revisit their journey to safety

Sisters Ghena and Haya are the featured storytellers from USA for UNHCR’s Refugee Storyteller Celebration, an opportunity to honor and recognize the creative voices of former refugees under the age of 30 who are now living in the United States. USA for UNHCR’s Communications team spent time with the twins and their family in April to learn firsthand about their journey to the U.S.

“I feel like just by looking at someone, you wouldn't know what they went through or the situation they're in right now,” says Ghena Al Nuwab, a former refugee now living in West Springfield, Massachusetts.

For Ghena, and her twin sister Haya, this insight finds its inspiration in part by learning about their own family’s refugee experience. The sisters were born as refugees in Jordan after their parents and older siblings fled threats of kidnapping and persecution in Iraq. When the twins were just three years old, the family was welcomed to the U.S. for resettlement and a chance to rebuild a peaceful life.

“Our father sheltered us from the pain that he had to endure in order to protect us,” explains Haya. “Now as we continue to discover our family’s past through his stories, we realize how lucky we are to have more opportunities and more freedom,” she continues.

We first met Ghena and Haya at their home in Massachusetts when we were welcomed to break Iftar with the twins, their parents, two older siblings and grandmother during Ramadan. After breaking fast with the traditional eating of a date and enjoying a delicious meal, Ghena and Haya's parents brought family picture albums to the table and stories and laughter ensued.

Serving platters and dishes were fast replaced by old photographs of the family back in Iraq and Jordan. Featured prominently among the numerous family memories were pictures of the twins in the arms of their father, Hussein.

“We’re really close with our dad,” the twins share. “When we look at our father, we see a kind, caring man; the center of our safety.”

“Ghena and Haya were shocked at what we have been through, especially the fact that we had to flee Iraq, leave the country, and leave everything behind, my house, my job — everything,” Hussein recalls. “I always put my daughters first and I always think about them before I think about myself.” 

Today, the sisters are safe — enjoying life as rising high school seniors, active in numerous after-school activities including playing as doubles partners on the West Springfield High School tennis team. They are excelling academically and have found a diverse and supportive community at school; the main entrance of West Springfield High School showcases more than 50 flags from around the world, each representing the home country of current students. 

When an opportunity to share their family’s refugee story presented itself, Ghena and Haya not only drew support from their family, they found support at school.

Their English teacher,  Damien Johnson, was a great influence.

"I do have empathy for these kids who are coming from other countries and I thought, somebody needs to give these kids a platform to tell their story," shares Johnson. “I'm really proud of the work that Ghena and Haya have done...I have really high expectations for them moving forward." 

And no matter their successes or future opportunities, Ghena and Haya never forget what their parents and older siblings endured. For the sisters, sharing that story is important and they hope it builds more empathy and understanding for what refugees overcome.

Reflecting on their parent's journey, both sisters are genuinely grateful. Haya smiles and warmly shares, “They started from the bottom and they got to the top.” 

“I really cherish that my dad and mom are still here and that they were so brave,” says Ghena. “They provided us the safety so that we wouldn't have to feel that loss of safety that was taken away from them.”

How can you help

USA for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency supports the full journey of refugees like Ghena and Haya. 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 safely pursue their dreams.