Meeting US lawmakers, Refugee Congress brings experience and hope
They came from around the world, survivors of conflict, violence and persecution, grateful for having been taken in by the United States and given a chance to live in dignity and free from deadly danger. And for three days in September, members of the Refugee Congress – one delegate from each US state – gathered in Washington, DC and engaged, on behalf of all vulnerable refugees resettled in the United States, in one of the most essential acts of American civic life: the voter sharing experience, insight and policy preference with the elected representative in Congress.
“I know what it’s like to feel invisible,” said Carmen Kcomt, the delegate from California who fled political persecution in Peru. “It is an honor and a privilege to be voice for asylum-seekers around the country and around the world who are so often unheard.”
The Refugee Congress is the only independent organization in the world exclusively comprising refugees, asylum-seekers, and stateless persons that empowers individuals who found freedom and safety in the United States to use their voices for advocacy. The Refugee Congress delegates hail from 25 different countries including Iraq, South Sudan, Syria, Rwanda and Afghanistan.
Having been among the few refugees given the opportunity by the US government to reclaim their lives, they have now become professors, accountants, nurses, teachers, social workers, lawyers, and U.S. military veterans – leaders in their new communities who exemplify the resilience of refugees and work to give back to the country that welcomed them.
“I got my house, I got my car, I got my job, but that didn’t really make me feel like an American,” said Som Nath Subedi, the Oregon delegate who fled ethnic cleansing in Bhutan. “Then I started giving back to my community – that’s the American dream for me.”
This year’s Refugee Congress gathering in Washington, the third of its kind since the independent, non-profit group was established in 2011, was led by the delegates who serve on the Refugee Congress advisory board, the group’s steering committee.
“The first two days we met to finalize our advocacy platform and our joint letter to policymakers,” said Clara Hart, the delegate from South Dakota and chair of the board. “This year, we decided to prioritize improvements to the asylum system and support for the resettlement of the most vulnerable refugees regardless of race, religion, origin, ethnicity, gender identity, or sexual orientation,” she added.
Frank Sharry, executive director of the respected immigrant rights advocacy organization America’s Voice, and Ger Duany, the actor and UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador, led dynamic workshops to help the delegates share their stories effectively. Duany is himself a refugee who, after fleeing Sudan as a child, was resettled to the U.S. and has become a successful model, actor, and humanitarian. In 2014 he starred in the award-winning film ‘The Good Lie’, which depicts a story of the resettlement of Sudanese Lost Boys in the United States.
The 2016 Refugee Congress culminated on the third and final day as delegates took to Capitol Hill to participate in over 120 meetings with members of Congress and their staff, providing their vital perspective to decision-makers whose policies affect the lives of refugees overseas and here in the United States.
“Many of us fled countries where speaking out puts you in danger,” said Sam Phatey, the delegate from the state of Georgia. “We are here because we love America, because we believe so strongly in democracy, in liberty and in freedom. We hope that the same compassion we received will continue to be shown to others fleeing persecution around the world.”
“After all,” he added, “embracing love and showing compassion – isn’t that what makes America not just great but the greatest?"