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‘Privilege, honor, and profound responsibility’: U.S. advocate and former refugee heads to the world's largest gathering on refugee issues


‘Privilege, honor, and profound responsibility’: U.S. advocate and former refugee heads to the world's largest gathering on refugee issues

A refugee resettled from the former Yugoslavia to the United States, Ayda Zugay says advocacy for people forced to flee their homes is a calling that chose her – not the other way around.
12 December 2023
woman in a white blazer and colorful hair wrap stands in front of wall next to TV with presentation on screen

Ayda Zugay leads the 'Refugee to MD' session, a crucial initiative supporting refugees with medical backgrounds in achieving U.S. licensure.


Advocate, social entrepreneur and former refugee, Ayda Zugay participates this week in the world’s largest gathering on refugee issues, the Global Refugee Forum. She is part of the delegation from the United States Refugee Advisory Board, which works to ensure forcibly displaced people have a meaningful role in influencing policies affecting them across regional and international policy bodies. Ayda is also the Refugee Congress Delegate for Massachusetts.

UNHCR asked Ayda about her motivations, expectations and hopes before she heads to Switzerland for the forum, December 13-15. 

What does it mean for you personally to participate in the Global Refugee Forum? 

Participating in the Global Refugee Forum is a blend of privilege, honor, and profound responsibility. I am grateful to be a part of this gathering through the United States Refugee Advisory Board, particularly because it means that I’ll be doing more than just sharing my journey – it's an opportunity to elevate the collective wisdom of refugees worldwide.  

The forum allows us to shift the perception of refugees from merely being subjects of aid to being recognized as leaders, agents of change and innovation, and sources of both professional and lived expertise. I think that this kind of holistic environment fosters policies that are more effective at addressing real-world challenges. At the GRF, I am eager to further explore how we can collectively leverage both of these dimensions to make a meaningful impact.  

This is more than just a conference – it’s a chance to make a real impact, to advocate for change that transcends borders and to be part of a global movement that values and uplifts the voices of those who are often not at the table, or at least not in meaningful ways. 

What inspired you to become an advocate? 

I didn't choose advocacy – it chose me. It was really born out of necessity in a world that from the start decided to reject me. From the moment I was born, my mixed heritage was a topic of public debate. This sense of being 'other' was compounded by the war and genocide in my birth country. My first name, my last name, my face, the way I thought, everything about me screamed 'target.' I remember the surreal contrast of playing basketball with the backdrop of gunfire, interrupted by soldiers marking our home with a red X – a sign that we were no longer welcome in our own house, and that it was ready to be occupied by people deemed worthy. I was a first-hand witness.  

If not for these experiences, maybe I would have been daydreaming about the stars, aspiring to be a physicist or an astronaut. But life had other plans. I became redefined in resilience, a witness to atrocities that no one should ever experience, but still do. And in that test of humanity, advocacy found me.  

When I arrived in the U.S., and later joined by my parents, it took us time to find our footing. It wasn’t until I was at college that the full weight of my experiences settled on me, really. I realized the depth of what I wanted – a world where no one would endure what I had, where everyone had a chance at safety, belonging, and thriving. 

That realization took shape in Meheba Refugee Camp, where I helped co-found the Refugee Advocacy Initiative. It wasn't just about offering help – it was about equipping refugees with knowledge about their rights, about turning advocacy into a tool for healing and change. This advocacy is also what ultimately led me to co-found Advancing Agency, what has now become one of the world’s few award-winning refugee-owned, refugee-led and refugee supporting social impact collaboratives. 

What solutions do refugees around the world need globally? 

What's needed is the development of anticipatory, collaborative networks. These global networks, powered by local innovation, would be able to not only mitigate the immediate impacts of displacement but prevent the spiral of loss – both financial and human – that often results from isolated responses typically necessitated by crisis. This requires us to leverage the collective power of all stakeholders working to support people who are displaced to address challenges before they explode into humanitarian disasters.  

At the core of these solutions must be the voices of those who are closest to the problems we are trying to solve. There is an urgent need for more inclusive policies that bring people with lived experience and technical expertise into strategic conversations, making them active participants in the policies that shape their lives. Education and skills recognition play a crucial role in this. A global system that allows for the recognition and transfer of educational credits and vocational skills can equip refugees to seamlessly continue their education and training enabling them to contribute meaningfully to their host communities almost immediately. 

How can international organizations, government leaders and civil society meet the challenges of this moment? 

To meet the challenges of this moment, a collective and coordinated approach is needed alongside a bold reimagining of our approach to displacement. International organizations and governments must work together to ensure that their policies are aligned and effectively address the needs of displaced people. This includes increased funding for refugee support programs to support collaboration, but also policy changes that prevent situations that create refugees in the first place.  

Civil society plays a crucial role in bridging gaps between policy and implementation, providing on-the-ground support, and localizing global mandates. This is true also for refugee-led organizations who understand the local context and have the trust of communities and their participation, all crucial to the success of any intervention. 

What are your hopes for the future? 

My hope is that in the future, and I hope a near one, the very concept of displacement becomes obsolete. I hope for a future where we've mastered the delicate balance between trade-offs and incentives, creating a global society that no longer accepts the uprooting of lives.