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How Do We Best Tell a Refugee Story?

Nadia Kasvin is being honored as a White House Champion of Change for World Refugees.

Mone Aye

Nadia Kasvin is being honored as a White House Champion of Change for World Refugees.

I think of myself as an accomplished person, having made my way from Crimea to the United States more than 20 years ago.  But even after living in this country for many years, I sometimes find myself wanting to say, “Just because I speak with an accent, does not mean I think with an accent. Look at me. See me. Listen to my ideas.  I am not invisible.” 

I have dedicated my life in this new country to helping refugees and immigrants be successful.  That task requires navigating cultural norms, social customs, housing, transportation, health care, and many other necessities that are new to refugees.  Yet sometimes my greatest hurdle is changing local attitudes toward the people I serve.  Many have never met someone born in another country.  They may not know our plight, our hard work ethic, our family story or our struggle to succeed in our new country. But once our stories are known and our desire for independence is understood, barriers disappear and our similarities trump any differences. That’s why our organization, US Together, celebrates the life of every refugee from initial hardship to accomplishment.

These stories are inspirational. There are so many to tell -- like the young woman from Democratic Republic of Congo who made her way here after a life pierced with gender-based violence.  She overcame her personally tragic past and opened her own business within a year of arrival to the United States. Or the story of a refugee from Bhutan who opened the first Nepali restaurant in his new adopted city, or the engineer from Ukraine who went on to create his own IT firm. Or my own story, one that starts as a refugee from Ukraine who co-founded a non-profit organization helping refugees and immigrants. Our entrepreneurial model is unique, utilizing our interpretive services as additional earned income in several cities, employing the very refugees that we work to resettle.  

Not many people fully appreciate the economic impact of new Americans. In Columbus, it is substantial. But to prove this point we need more than anecdotal stories. All of us working in Refugee Resettlement would love to have the research staff to track changes in our refugees’ employment and income status. We would like to be able to tell you how many refugees open their own business, and how many of our children go to college, and what professions they choose. Rarely do agencies like ours have the capacity for such an extensive follow up. But I have heard enough stories to know the numbers would impress. How can we best communicate our struggle, integration and success? Maybe there are other ways for an immigrant with an accent to be heard.  I invite everybody to participate in this discussion. Let me know your ideas. 

Nadia Kasvin is a co-founder and director of US Together, Inc.,, a statewide mutual assistance and resettlement organization from Ohio, dedicated to providing a host of resettlement and integration services for refugees and immigrants from all over the world.