The Power of Refugee Stories in Advocacy
On May 8th and 9th, I joined over three hundred advocates from thirty-two states in Washington DC, for the Refugee Council USA advocacy days. In attendance were close to a hundred former refugees from diverse countries. I was really pleased to see many of my friends from the refugee community and connected with new ones. We were all in DC to advocate for a robust refugee resettlement program, and lift up stories of many refugee families still impacted by the current slowdown in refugee arrivals and the low admission number.
This month’s thought leader is Adamou Mohamed. Adamou led the efforts with our national affiliate, Church World Service, for the advocacy trip several of our staff members and community leaders attended earlier this month. Originally from the West African country of Niger, Adamou is the Refugee Community Organizing Coordinator with the Immigration and Refugee Program at Church World Service. In his role, Adamou leads many refugee leadership development, community organizing and civic engagement trainings and coordinates refugee and immigrant advocacy efforts in key states lifting up refugee voices, stories, and promoting the welcome of refugees and immigrants in multiple states. Adamou holds an MA in International Studies from NC State University, Raleigh.
I’ve always believed that it is more impactful for refugees to tell their stories during advocacy opportunities instead of relying on others to tell it. Refugees’ experiences are unique and very powerful, and sharing our story gives us the opportunity to connect, inspire and move people to action, thus transforming the public narrative. A refugee story should not however be limited to the struggles they faced while fleeing violence and surviving in the refugee camps, but must also include their resiliency and contributions to their new communities as they integrate the fabric of a country – who gave them another chance to rebuild their lives. I have witnessed the power of story before in previous advocacy meetings when a member of Congress who had no intention of sitting at the meeting walked by, heard a refugee sharing his story, and ended up sitting for the entire meeting as he was moved by the story he heard.
What I saw ten days ago in DC further demonstrated how stories facilitate actions. This time, it was at a roundtable discussion with decision makers from federal agencies that oversee the refugee program: a former refugee and mother shared how she survived an attack that left her running for her life and making the toughest choice of leaving her four children behind. She also spoke of how she is overcoming her physical limitations to work and care for disabled Americans at their homes. This mother applied for her children to join her three years ago, but recent slowdown in refugee admissions have left her wandering if she will ever be reunited with them again. To the surprise of all in the room, one of the officials in the room was so moved that she personally made it her mission to make sure that she is reunited with her children. This action brought many in the room to tears and joy at the same time.
That was the power of storytelling. As a community organizer, I have held many workshops about the power of storytelling in advocacy efforts with refugee community members, particularly when meeting with our elected officials who make decisions that impact our lives. Some people may feel like things are not getting better at the federal level on refugee policies, and see these visits as pointless since they are only likely to meet with a staff and not the elected official. The truth is that Congressional staffers are the eyes and ears of their boss: they write the reports and brief members of Congress about issues their constituents care about. We should see this as an opportunity to educate them and build champions. Many of the refugee and immigrant leaders hit the Congressional offices on May 9th, ready to share our stories ready to change hearts and minds once more; and that we did. This is definitely one of my most memorable advocacy visits.