The United States has a long, proud tradition of offering people fleeing war and crisis a new start. But now it is pulling back the welcome mat, and refugee arrivals have dropped to their lowest levels ever.
Meet five new Americans who after escaping conflict and rebuilding their lives are now standing up for the rights of other refugees. They are using their voices to highlight the strength, determination and courage of individuals like themselves who are contributing to America’s culture and economy.
The International Rescue Committee recently interviewed these capable leaders during their visit to Washington, D.C., where they spoke to their representatives in Congress about the importance of welcoming refugees and other newcomers to American society.
Refugees are cool!
Name: Nuam San
Lives in: Clarkston, GA
Job: Freshman at Agnes Scott College
I dream of working as the White House press secretary or becoming a member of Congress. I want to be the person who helps people find their dreams, talents and skills and bring peace to their communities. Not with just words, but also actions.
I came to the U.S. as a refugee not knowing any English, and I’m about to be a sophomore in college. I’m telling my story because [refugee] stories need to be heard. Refugees are so cool, me included! We don’t mean any harm. We work hard, trying to have a normal life and take advantage of the same opportunities as every other American.
With my story, I want people, especially refugees, to have hope and not to give up. If I can do it, then you can do it. Giving up is never an option. My goal is to at least have an impact on one person that changes his or her life to make a better future.
Standing here in Congress is my greatest moment.
Name: Timothy Ogatu
From: South Sudan
Lives in: Baltimore, MD
When I lived in Kenya as a refugee, I woke up at 4am every day to walk from the refugee camp to the United Nations office with my children on my back, hoping to get news about resettling to the U.S. It’s something my children still remember...the interviews, the walk in the heat, the 500 people waiting in line to hear about their future.
My children are so proud of what I’m doing that they wanted to accompany me on my trip to D.C. so they, too, can talk to people about who refugees are and why they are here.
My children are my heroes. It’s where I get my energy to speak out and help refugees who do not have a voice. They think about their friends who are still in the refugee camp in Kenya. My eldest son, Emmanuel, said, “Why don’t people want them to go to school? That’s all they want to do.”
I never dreamed that one day that I would be here in this building, the Capitol. This is my greatest moment, talking to my representative about refugees and their plight.
I am passionate about mobilizing support for people seeking safety and new beginnings regardless of their status.
Name: Manar Marouf
Lives in: New York, NY
Job: IRC family education coordinator
“I moved to the U.S. from Syria after I received a scholarship to pursue a dual master’s program in 2013. As the war became worse, I had no choice but to stay and apply for Temporary Protected Status (TPS).
However, come Sept. 30, I and 7,000 other Syrians are bracing for the unknown. We’re currently at a place where we don’t know what’s happening next, pending the Department of Homeland Security’s decision whether to extend, reinstate or terminate TPS, possibly forcing us to leave the U.S. if the latter happens.
Many of us have laid down our roots. We work, study, pay taxes, and have started families in this country. Even though I didn't come to the U.S. as a refugee, I am passionate about mobilizing support for people seeking safety and new beginnings regardless of their status.
Working with the IRC and the refugee community, I found the administration’s policies affecting our crucial day-to-day work supporting the most vulnerable populations. During our recent Capitol Hill visits we learned representatives and senators do indeed listen to their constituents. Making a call to your senator and representative has a huge impact.
As refugees, immigrants, asylum seekers and people with Temporary Protected Status, we love this country and significantly contribute to American society, making it a more robust and welcoming place and that is what America stands for.
Always show love, even more to the people who hate you.
Name: Yasir Magsoosi
Lives in: Seattle, WA
Job: English language teacher
I have a lot of heroes who inspire me every single day: Martin Luther King Jr., my family, and my students. Dr. King left an impact not just on Americans, but the world. Without his movement, I wouldn’t be here right now. My family has always been there for me despite the challenges, the dangers we faced. My adult students who I teach English to inspire me every night. They come from work, exhausted. Many have experienced unimaginable terrors from their home country. Many of their parents were deported. But they leave that all behind and come ready to learn.
This is why I decided to stand up for refugee rights in the U.S. I’ve seen and experienced firsthand what a welcome can do for people who’ve spent most of their lives living in fear. I just learned that shortly after our meeting with her office, Senator Murray decided to cosponsor the GRACE Act, which will set the minimum annual refugee admissions at 95,000!
I am lucky to have a chance to come to the U.S, but my happiness is bittersweet because I think of the refugees left behind—and the many who I have lost. The best advice I ever received was from my high school teacher who said, “Always show love, even more to the people who hate you.”
Don’t be discouraged by people who underestimate you or put you down because of your background or accent. It’s what makes you special.
I’ve experienced firsthand the best of humanity opening their doors to allow my family’s safety and security in the U.S.
Name: Tatjana Andrews
Lives in: Salt Lake City, UT
Job: IRC administrative coordinator
I was nervous at first about sharing my story. But one of my best friends asked me, “Do you have something to say?” In that moment, I realized I do need to use my voice.
As a former refugee, I need to tell my story and my family’s story in hope that I change the view of at least one person I talk to. I was just 5 years old when I arrived to the U.S. after my family escaped the Yugoslavian conflict to Germany, and then eventually to the U.S.
My mom, Svjetlana, is the reason I am the person I am today. She worked endlessly to create a future for us. She is my daily motivation to keep growing, to keep building and to always believe there is a way forward.
America is a second chance for families torn apart by war and conflict. I represent not only myself but my community…and the millions of families that are just like mine, who are seeking safety away from war, persecution and disaster.
I’ve experienced firsthand the best of humanity opening their doors to allow my family’s safety and security in the U.S. The negatively surrounding refugees is startling and disheartening, but I’m hopeful that good will overrule the fear that has shaped the current policy on refugee resettlement—as long as we come together.
Photos taken by Andrew Oberstadt
Refugee Voices is a platform for former refugees to advocate, tell their story, volunteer, or take other actions in support of refugees and refugee programs in the U.S. It is hosted by the International Rescue Committee (IRC), which has refugee resettlement offices in 24 U.S. cities as well as humanitarian programs in more than 40 countries. Learn more.