(Washington, D.C.) March 10, 2016 – This article was updated on May 6 to include a video featuring participants at the event.
For 25 bright young minds who traveled to Washington recently for a three-day conference, their journey actually began years earlier and far away. And while their stories vary on how they came to the United States, they share a common bond of tragedy, struggle, hope and renewal in their new homeland.
Some were refugees born continents away while others were asylum seekers, migrants or victims of human trafficking. For the participants of the 2016 U.S. Refugee Youth Consultation in February, the event was a chance to discuss their past while also setting course for a bright future.
“These are truly exceptional kids,” said Mitzi Schroeder, Policy Director of Jesuit Refugee Service/USA, which co-sponsored the event. “The youngest was 16, who came as a refugee a few years ago from Nigeria, and she’s graduating from high school this year and going on to college. These kids who participated are very, very capable; they came from terrible backgrounds and who now are doing very, very well.”
The first-ever event, hosted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and co-sponsored by several refugee resettlement groups and non-government organizations, was a prelude to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ annual NGO Consultations. Held every summer in Geneva, the event allows NGOs worldwide to collectively influence global refugee policy while allowing them to network and build alliances among themselves.
Schroeder, who helped organize and run the Washington youth event, spoke more about its impact:
QUESTION: Could you give a brief overview of the U.S. Refugee Youth Consultation event?
Mitzi Schroeder: The Youth Consultation was a gathering of young people between the ages of 16 and 25 from around the United States who have been resettled here or who have been given asylum in the U.S., or people who have been rescued from (human) traffickers. So these are all forced migrants – most of them refugees – from many different countries around the world. And the purpose of bringing them together in Washington is to provide input from refugee youth themselves on the issues facing them in their lives in their situations as new Americans. This is part of year-long process of consulting with youth around the world to provide input to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees’ NGO annual consultations, which will take place in Geneva in June.
Q: And the theme for the Geneva event is youth issues, correct?
MS: In recent years, in order to give the consultations more focus, we have tried to have a theme for each year’s consultation and to center the presentations primarily around that theme. In the past they tended to be a bit scattered in their approach, so the idea has been to give them a theme to suggest improvements in a certain area in meeting refugee needs. So this year’s broad theme is youths.
Q: Will any of the participants in the U.S. consultation attend the Geneva event?
MS: About 10 of these youth consultations are taking place around the world, and each of these consultations will send two young people to Geneva – one as a principle and one as an alternate. And they’ll be able to participate in the entire conference, but they’ll also give a presentation on behalf of their place of origin on issues facing (refugee) youths.
Q: Where did the participants originally come from?
MS: They came from quite a few countries. We had a couple from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and there were participants from Nigeria, Haiti, Nicaragua, Egypt and Burma. We had a couple of Bhutanese who had been students in JRS schools when they were living there.
Q: What sort of activities took place at the event?
MS: Prior to their arrival we had asked them to undertake a process of meeting with other refugee youth in their community and to come up with priority issues that they would like to discuss at the meeting. They sent those suggestions to us and we collated them and picked out the four broad issues that were mentioned by most of the participants, which were education, English language problems, cultural adjustment issues and bullying and discrimination. So we broke the 25 kids down into groups of five, and each group had an adult facilitator from our steering committee. And then we had them use a diagram of a tree and stickie notes to identify the root causes of a particular problem and the implications for refugee youth and what were the effects on refugee youth with the problem, and then to brainstorm some things that they might be able to do in their community to change that situations, to address the issue.
On the second day, we had some advocacy training and we did a number of activities. And in the afternoon we invited stakeholders, which included all the government agencies that deal with refugee resettlement, a lot of the resettlement agencies and other interested people who we thought would want to hear this. And then five of the participants presented the findings of the larger group on all of these issues.
Q: How did you find and chose the participants?
MS: Most of the people on the steering committee were (refugee) resettlement agencies … so we worked with (them) and asked them to nominate kids who they thought would have something to say on the issues. And we had an application form, which was pretty complete and asked for a personal statement from the refugees so we could see how they thought and wrote. We also asked for a statement of support from their sponsoring agency regarding what they would be willing to do to work with the youth after they returned from the meeting to try to support (refugee) advocacy in the community. Out of 40 or 50 applicants we chose 25.
Q: What did you find most moving during these discussions and presentations?
MS: I guess what stood out to me was that all of these young people share the same aspirations and all of the same insecurities that any kid would have at their age, and all of the same challenges. I think their refugee experience has made some of them more thoughtful and even more determined to succeed than the average young person. They’re struggling with so many things, but they’re dealing with them so beautifully that it was really inspiring, and I just felt that America was lucky to have people of that caliber coming to us to be part of our society.
And I guess there was a vulnerability in the kids that they were willing to share, but also a great determination to overcome things that stood in their way.
Q: What do you hope the kids take away from this experience?
MS: We hope their takeaway is – although many of them expressed a certain degree of frustration and isolation as refugees – that there are people and institutions interested in hearing what they say and that there are possibilities for improvement. Some things like bullying is hard for institutions in Washington to get at. But some of the issues they raised, like access to education, could be better addressed. And on stakeholders day, people in positions of responsibility heard what they had to say. (We hope the youth learned) that there are avenues that they can pursue in their communities to try to, for example, meet with schools board, to deal with parent-teacher groups, all sorts of ideas and how to get some of those ideas across.
Q: What did you take away from it?
MS: There was great concern in this country before there was a decision made to resettle certain groups that some groups, like, for example, kids from the Congo who are coming here very different backgrounds, coming from very hard situations, often a very deprived and violent background – that they would have tremendous, almost insurmountable problems in adjustment when they got here. Well, there were several kids from the Congo at the event, and certainly those kids weren’t having insurmountable problems in adjustment. They were no more or no less adjusted they anyone else in the room, including the adults.
The U.S. takes (refugees) on the basis of need and vulnerability. Many countries only take people they think can be integrated in their society; they set a bar based on culture or education or jobs skills, or a lot of other things.
We don’t do that, and I think seeing these kids from so many different backgrounds who are going to do just fine, was sort of an affirmation for me of the wisdom of our policy of just helping people who need help and that given opportunity, most people will do really well. People have a will to succeed, they have a will to survive and thrive, and given fertile ground – especially young people – they are perfectly able to take advantage of that.