He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt. (Deuteronomy 10:18-19)
The refugee camp was a “bubble of hopelessness,” Dipesh said. A place of not knowing – not knowing how to dream, not knowing how to grow. And when that camp burned down, too, he was left with nothing. Those “flames stole my hope,” he said, and all he could do is grab his sister and run. Again.
Originally a Bhutanese refugee from Nepal, Dipesh is one of 27 young refugee leaders gathered at the US Conference of Catholic Bishops for the US Refugee Youth Consultation. Valentin from Honduras (now sporting a fedora and living in Seattle – we compared notes about the mountains and the rain). Jamal from Somalia. Aya from Sudan. Tuku from Ethiopia. Kalisa from Rwanda.
Each of them had a story like the one Dipesh told. Heartbreaking stories. Inspiring stories. They all had run away – sometimes with their families, sometimes alone. They were trying to escape war and persecution. And they left everything behind.
After years in camps with almost no hope, years more of asylum applications and security checks, they landed in cities across the US – from Pittsburgh to Denver to Fargo. And they faced new challenges here, too.
School systems that asked for a transcript (sorry, they didn’t bring that when fleeing the soldiers). Teachers who had no idea what is a refugee. Endless bullying by peers who made fun of their accent color of their skin.
Bullying and discrimination were their biggest enemies – dampening their spirits, forcing isolation, preventing them from reaching their potential. “I tried so hard to hold back the tears,” one person said. They longed for respect, friendship, and someone who would take the time to understand them.
This consultation was part of a global effort by UNHCR to better understand the needs of refugee youth. These young leaders were articulate, passionate and insightful. And already they are doing their part – taking charge and empowering others:
- Dipesh and his friends created the Children of Shangri-Lost – a website with poetry and videos that tell the stories of refugees.
- Aya wants to promote the American Friends program, which matches refugee youth with English-speaking hosts, who can help new arrivals navigate the unfamiliar realities in America – from winter clothes to traffic lights. And just to be their friend. (I’m embarrassed that I never heard of this program).
These stories of these young leaders offered a poignant, heart-breaking and inspirational glimpse into the lives of refugees. Resilient and strong. Vulnerable and struggling. Juggling school and work and family, learning English and adjusting to a culture so different from their own.
Besides the stories, I was struck by the places where these young leaders live. Kansas City, Missouri. Fargo, North Dakota. Worcester, Mass. Salt Lake City, Utah. Portland, Maine. Los Angeles. All around us are young people like Dipesh, and Aya, and Tuku and Kalisa and Rusul and Tania and Engoma and Jimmy.
Young people looking for a friend – a welcome – a chance at life … because, as Dipesh said, “despite everything, we still dream.”