“You become a refugee to survive and live. I left to live.”
Pavel was the most recent guest speaker for Washington & Jefferson’s “Refugee Voices” conversation series. Pavel was spirited, witty, and insightful, and shared with us an intimate story about his experience of living in Venezuela and his journey to find safety and a new life in Argentina.
Recently my college hosted the second installment of the “Refugee Voices” series, featuring the ambitious and motivated Fanar Ayad. Born in Iraq, Fanar and her family were forced to flee her home in Baghdad due to their Christianity and the growing unrest due to Al-Qaeda presence in her town. Against all odds, Fanar has since attended and graduated from high school and university in Kurdistan and Jordan, respectively. I was humbled by her immense passion and drive to receive an education and astonished by her bravery as she told the W&J community about her life as a refugee.
This past semester, I was in an African music class and did a presentation on the Zambian musician, Yvonne Mwale. After doing some preliminary research, I quickly realized that Yvonne was sharing an incredible life story through her music, and creating some utterly moving pieces that touched me both emotionally and spiritually. I reached out to her via social media to see if she was interested in speaking with me so I could learn more, and have since created a podcast that features our interview and some of her songs.
As a college student studying International Relations, I have learned a great deal about various international conflicts and their history. However, I have not had the chance to speak with those who were actually affected by these conflicts and learn about the personal ramifications that these historical events have had. Through an organization called “NaTakallam” and with the help of the W&J Diversity & Leadership Office, I was able to bring Sayed Adiban to campus “virtually” through a new program called “Refugee Voices,” which seeks to increase intercultural awareness on campus. Sayed spoke with us about his experience as an Afghan refugee in Iran and Indonesia, about the uncertainty of refugee life, and highlighted the common misconception of Afghan refugees as being “dangerous people.” I was humbled by the bravery that Sayed exhibited through reliving these experiences and was grateful that he shared with us such personal stories, outlining the unimaginable hardship of the refugee experience.
As a mentor to first-year students at my college last Fall, I was lucky enough to have Mukena Kasongo “Deogracias” as one of my students. She was charming and inquisitive, and impressively fluent in French, English, Swahili, and Lingala. Now that we are in an African Music course together, we took the time to speak about her immigration story from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the barriers that she has overcome to be a successful and inspirational college student.
Singer, actor, model, and entrepreneur, Eugenia Forteza is a beautiful and charming young Argentinian-French woman living in New York City. Although she is a super busy and an extremely accomplished artist, Eugenia Forteza took time out of her day to share with me her story of immigration to the United States from Argentina, and spoke about the powerful multicultural aspect of opera in her life. Described as a “total diva on stage,” by Mario Arevalo, I was delighted and humbled that Eugenia shared her warm personality and enthusiasm for music with me.
Bright rays from the orange dawn filter through the window where the three of us sit. My parents – my mom and dad – are sitting across from me on a couch, their hands intertwined. Our family is accustomed to moving forward with the rhythm of life; it’s rare that we take the time to deeply reflect on our individual histories. One thing that may surprise you about the migrant life is just how traumatic it can be. Although my parents were both ultimately able to provide my siblings and I with a better life, they paid a large price for it. They dealt with war, poverty, and a lack of opportunities in their home countries, and then when they immigrated, they put up with discrimination, insecurity, and loneliness. It can be difficult to open up those old wounds, and as a child of immigrants, I’m usually tender with the questions I ask about my parents’ experiences prior to when I was born. Therefore, when Clara approached me with this project, I was hesitant to participate. It was my parents – who I had been worried about – that encouraged me to share their words with others. Every opportunity for an immigrant to have a voice is one worth taking, no matter how small or large the audience may be.
A forward on Walter Angus Li’s story by his son, Steven Li.
“As a child of an immigrant, learning about my parent’s life when they were young is a fascinating topic. From the cultural differences to the varying lifestyle they grew up in, you get to learn that life can be harder than you think, or it can be easier than you think. Being able to travel and see where my parents grew up is an eye-opening experience that many people do not get the chance to have. Understanding that they had a different childhood and being able to see the struggles that they had growing up makes me appreciate all the hard work that they have accomplished in their life.“
When I first arrived on Washington & Jefferson Campus in 2018, I almost immediately knew who Tasha Mwanakalando was. Everyone on campus regarded her with respect, and just from a few conversations with her, I knew that she was a truly genuine and caring person (with the most style I had ever seen). Coming from Lusaka, Zambia, Tasha provided me with an interesting perspective on American customs I hadn’t thought about before, and explained to me how she is addressing the current political climate Americans find themselves.
Aziegbemi “Okis” Okisamen is currently a graduate student studying applied mathematics at IUP. Coming from the South of Nigeria, he shared with me some interesting aspects of American educational culture that I had not thought about before, as well as his perspective regarding the work ethic at Pennsylvania’s company, Sheetz.
Growing up, my family referred to the always smiling and always generous Jean-Yves Boulard as “the bread man.” I have fond memories of stepping into his bakery, begging my parents to let me have an extra sticky bun and choosing which baguette we would eat at dinner.
Now a college student, I was delighted to sit down with him and learn about his experience coming from France to the United States. We discussed French perceptions of America, his life-long love for learning, and the complexity of navigating different languages and discovering subconscious taboos when migrating to a new country. Truly a fascinating man of many talents, Jean-Yves described his story to me as having three threads; his professional path from teacher to baker, the switch from his native culture and language to a host one, and the story of his relationship starting in one country and language and deepening in another, all which “intertwine, reverberate, and influence one another.” What struck me most was when he remarked that “the fascinating aspect of the succession is that I could not have been a baker without having read all the philosophy and literature I did” prior.
A foreword on Sven Zepic’s story by his girlfriend, Jenelle Senske.
“Meeting Sven my freshman year of college four years ago has been, in more ways than one, absolutely life-changing for me. I always dreamt of being an immigration lawyer but never truly had any idea of what it was actually like to be an immigrant in the United States… and then I started dating one when I was eighteen! Sven and his family have opened my eyes in so many ways and have only made me more passionate about pursuing my future career. While the times we are currently facing are scary and unprecedented, it is certainly not the first time Sven and his family have faced struggles. From leaving their home and all they had known their whole lives in the midst of a terrifying war, the Zepic family has persevered and thrived in the United States. It is an honor and a privilege to know them. Enjoy this tiny bit of their story!“
Life is a story about creating oneself. My life is all about my dreams and visions for the future. To define myself, I am an educated, Palestinian, multilingual, Muslim woman who finds the actual meaning of her life in pursuing her education despite all obstacles. Since childhood, I found myself in a position of responsibility.
A forward on Huma Affan’s story by her daughter, Nabeeha Affan.
“I think it often surprises people how different growing up is when your parents are immigrants. Because I was born in the United States and have lived here my entire life, I often find it difficult to imagine my parents life in Pakistan. As children of immigrants, we hope our parents understand that we may have different values from them. And, as our parents, they hope that these values do not intrude on the culture and traditions that have been passed down for generations. The emergence of advanced technologies as well as the difference in where we were raised has contributed to a great generational divide between children of immigrants and their parents. Growing up with this divide is often strenuous, especially when you are a minority. However, we also grow up knowing that our parents sacrificed so much for us and that they love us despite these differences.”
A foreword on Matti Inayat’s story by his son, Anosh Matti.
“This is a narrative of my Dad’s journey from Pakistan to the United States. He wrote about the religious intolerance he experienced as a Catholic that led him to take the step of seeking religious asylum. Whether or not you know some of the story, or none, please take the time to read from start to end. I promise you will feel more fortunate about your life.”
Juan Couso was truly the most genuine person I metat W&J campus, graduating this past May 2020. Before I even knew Juan, he was instantly kind and caring towards me. We trained to be first year student mentors together, and I soon realized that Juan possessed a rare gift of making anyone feel loved and appreciated instantaneously. Throughout the school year, he would always ask me how I was doing, offer me a hug if I was having a rough day, and say “you’ve got this.” Juan has overcome racial stereotypes, the difficulties of cultural assimilation, and is still figuring out the broad spectrum of his migrant identity. However, his inspirational story of migrating to the United States is one of resilience, adaptability, and triumph. In Juan’s own words, “I want to tell people about my experiences. I’m an immigrant too. I was able to graduate from college and high school. If I can do it, you can do it.”
Dr. Prashanth Bharadwaj is a professor of management and Dean’s Associate in the Eberly College of Business and IT at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He first came to the United States in 1988 to attend graduate school but stayed because of the economic and educational opportunities he was granted. Although he has lived in the United States for three decades, he still retains close connections to India and even helps American students to discover his beautiful country through study abroad options in the winter.
While working in Cape Cod during the summer of 2019, I met the beautiful and vivacious Raneen Nassar. When I asked her to partake in my Oral History Project this Spring, I had no idea that she was about to share with me an intense migration story and divulge her personal journey to grappling with her Arab heritage. Not only did Raneen live through the Arab Spring, manage complex family dynamics, and navigate the American foster care system, but she has also shown an unwavering determination to establish what her own identity is in the United States as a young Egyptian-American woman.
This March of 2020, a majority of Americans are practicing social distancing by staying in our homes with Wifi and stocked pantries. Yet, we continuously complain as if social distancing is not actually a privilege. In times like these we should instead be grateful that we have a roof over our heads and a family to support us.
Back in June of 2019, I came into contact with Nara, an 18 year old Moroccan girl who currently resides in Sevilla, Spain. However, she had called Spain her home for little more than a year when I met her, and during our conversation she proceeded to tell me an amazing story about her choice to migrate to Europe.