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Refugees are experts at creating hope and better futures, given the chance


Refugees are experts at creating hope and better futures, given the chance

To mark World Refugee Day, US-based refugee leader Dauda Sesay describes how inclusion and empowerment hold the key to helping refugees find a sense of hope away from home.
19 June 2023
A man sits in a conference room with other delegates in the background.

Dauda Sesay attends the 2022 Annual Tripartite Consultations on Resettlement in Geneva, Switzerland, as the first refugee adviser to the US delegation.

The news that there are now 110 million displaced people  worldwide is an unwelcome record that should also serve as a call to action. World Refugee Day on 20 June is an opportunity to celebrate the resilience and hope of refugees and to recognize the vital role they can play in confronting record levels of global displacement.

My name is Dauda Sesay, and I am a husband, father of five and a refugee leader, a title that encapsulates moments of struggle, triumph, service and unyielding hope for a brighter tomorrow. I carry within me two worlds: Sierra Leone, my homeland, where my roots lie deep, and the United States, the land that embraced me, offering sanctuary and prospects for a new life.

The story of my past includes painful chapters. My family was torn apart – I lost my beloved father and seven-year-old sister to violence. I bear personal scars – a bullet wound on my left leg and a near-severed right arm. Our once-happy and loving family was shattered. I spent over a decade in a refugee camp in Gambia, where each day was filled with struggles, uncertainty and a yearning for peace. Yet, amid these harsh conditions and personal tragedies, life also gifted me moments of profound joy. I met my wife, and together, we welcomed our daughter into our transient but hopeful lives.

My past includes painful chapters.

After many years in Gambia, the opportunity for a new life emerged when the United States opened its doors to us. In 2009, we resettled in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, a place initially foreign to us but which soon became home. Here I discovered human kindness and community acceptance. Two generous individuals, Dr. Pamela Ravere Jones and Mrs. Virgie Kamara, embodied this warm welcome  as they took my family under their wings. Our new friends and the compassionate local community became our extended family, revealing the spirit of unity that exists in humanity.

My personal journey did not end with resettlement. After 20 years of separation, in 2021 I reconnected with my mother in Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown, where she lives. Our reunion was a profoundly emotional moment, and a  testament to the enduring power of family ties and faith.

Today, my own experiences and resolve fuel my work and dedication to empowering refugees and immigrants to rise above their circumstances and become leaders in their communities. I am the National Network Director at African Communities Together, leading a network of hundreds of African immigrant and refugee leaders and institutions across the United States, advocating on the issues that affect them and their families. As Vice Chair of the Board of Directors for Refugee Congress and a member of the United States Refugee Advisory Board, I ensure that individuals who have experienced forced displacement participate in shaping the very policies and programs that gave me a chance to build the life I have today in the US.

Men unload boxes of relief supplies from the back of a pickup truck.

Dauda and colleagues from LORI deliver food and other aid items to families affected by Hurricane Laura in Lake Charles, Louisiana, in August 2020.

At the Louisiana Organization for Refugees and Immigrants (LORI), which I co-founded, we have helped thousands of  refugees and immigrants to become self-reliant through civic engagement, economic empowerment, legal assistance and social integration. Examples include a pregnant woman from Afghanistan who was evacuated during the war and had to leave her husband and two children behind. Despite immense challenges, through her own determination and with our support, she enrolled in our English classes and developed new skills, setting the foundation for her successful integration. I've also had the privilege to work with and nurture other refugee and immigrant leaders, like Sharon Njie, an asylum seeker we assisted, who now works at LORI and serves as a Refugee Congress Delegate for Louisiana, Sara Louis-Ayo from South Sudan and Marcela Hernandez from Colombia, who are using their lived experiences and skills to assist others in their integration journeys.

In the face of disasters like Hurricanes Laura and Ida, LORI, along with other refugee and immigrant leaders, provided over 300 families with food and life-saving supplies. These efforts are a potent reminder that refugees, despite their past hardships, are resilient and eager to give back to the communities that welcomed them.

Our annual World Refugee Day event brings together hundreds of people from across Louisiana, representing 35 countries, in a vibrant celebration of diversity and unity. It's an opportunity to share stories, learn from each other, and foster empathy and community spirit.

Refugees must be included as equal partners.

As we look to the future, I urge decision makers and leaders everywhere to enhance and expand resettlement programs and other lifelines offered to refugees. Increased funding is also needed to support organizations that provide sustainable integration and support to refugees. And crucially, refugees must be included as equal partners in creating solutions to the challenges they face.

I encourage you, as members of your local communities, to open your hearts and minds to your refugee and immigrant neighbors. Attend events, talk to us, learn our stories and understand our cultures. We are your neighbors, your co-workers, your teachers, your children's classmates. Remember, our journey isn't solely one of hardship. Each refugee embodies an extraordinary capacity for resilience, a testament to the indomitable human spirit's ability to find hope amid despair and build a new home from the ashes of the past.

However, I implore you to go further. Don't merely acknowledge our pain; act upon it. Use your voice to advocate for peace and improved living conditions for refugees in camps and urban settings around the world, where many still endure harsh conditions and an uncertain future. We mustn't forget them. 

Our collective voice holds the power to change policies and shift perspectives. Your empathy and understanding can make a tangible difference in the world. As we confront this unprecedented humanitarian crisis, let's build an inclusive, empathetic world together where every life story, regardless of how tragic its beginnings, can find a hopeful and uplifting ending.