Last week, we published the story of Nyamuoch Girwath, one of the outstanding former refugees who will participate in World Refugee Day Academy on June 18-20. Today, we are excited to share the courageous journey of another Academy participant, Selena Sujoldzic. Selena and her family came to the United States as refugees from Bosnia when she was a child, and they were resettled with the help of LIRS. She currently works as a lawyer in Kansas.
If you are a former refugee, or if your life has been touched by a former refugee, click here to tell us your story!
Home. It takes only 4 letters to write the word, but for some, it takes a lifetime to find its meaning. It’s a word that has caused me, as a former refugee, much pain, confusion, uncertainty. Once I finally found its meaning, I found serenity and peace. As I was growing up, home for me was Bosnia and Herzegovina. Due to a bloody aggression and genocide that was executed upon Bosnia, my family and I were forced to run and save our lives. The United States of America opened its doors to me and my family, and welcomed us into its world. With LIRS’s help, we got back up on our feet and my journey since then, as you will find with any former refugee, has been nothing short of interesting.
I think at the very beginning, it was difficult for me to let go of my old life. I was 12 years old, so I still had that illusion that this unfamiliar country, with this unfamiliar language and unfamiliar culture, was all just temporary. I struggled with it for a while. But then I decided that while I was here, I was going to be exactly who I was and try to recreate my old life here: I would become a class president, and I would sing in choir, and I would talk to as many people as possible…and by not giving up on who I was, no matter what country I lived in, I found my familiarity in America. It was hard for my parents to let me and my brother go and they had to overcome fear, not only fear for our lives since the war was still very much so fresh in our minds, but fear of letting their children go into this unfamiliar culture they knew nothing about.
My interest in law came early on in high school as I learned more about this country and how I could use the law of this land to help people. I was intrigued, and I made it my life’s mission to study law and to use it to help people- to fight for people without voices and tell their stories when they can’t. Of course, there were many roadblocks. Some were created by life itself, and some by people who did not accept me as a refugee. In the end, I realized that the only roadblocks in my way were the ones that I allowed to stay there. I started fighting for my beliefs, fighting against anyone who told me that I wasn’t American enough, or that I was too foreign, or anyone who told me that I have no right to feel anything when I hear the American national anthem…I fought them by becoming everything I wanted to become and I continue to fight them by educating anyone who is brave enough to say those things to me today.
When I received a letter from LIRS inviting me to apply for the opportunity to participate in World Refugee Day Academy, it was the first time someone had addressed me as a “former” refugee. I always considered myself just a “refugee.” That word “former” in the letter caused me hours of self-searching and analyzing of my own life, my own definition. At what point do you stop being a refugee and start being a “former” refugee? Is there a deadline when that word expires? Do you need to accomplish a certain amount of success before losing that haunting title? I found my answer to be that I stopped being a refugee when I truly felt like I found home again: that first time I felt something during the national anthem, or that first time I felt something when I saw the American flag flowing in the wind, or that first time I got angry when someone said something about America. Even though people made me feel ashamed for feeling that way, or not worthy to be called an American, I still felt it. And that’s when I redefined myself from being a refugee to someone who has a place to once again call “home.” I am very proud of where I come from; I have the highest respect for my Bosnian culture. My parents, to this day, continue to instill that culture in me. I truly believe that you cannot go forward if you don’t know where you came from. But I am taking all of the pride in my heritage and I am moving forward in this great country that gave me a place to be who I am today.
In my community, I hope to raise more positive awareness regarding refugees and their rights as human beings. I want people to learn that refugees are just people, with heartbeats and feelings, like everyone else. They are people who are refugees for a reason, who have endured enough hardship and had to leave everything behind to find a new home. I want people to understand that. And before, when I would see someone treating a refugee badly, or speaking ill about refugees, my first reaction would be to raise my voice and put that person in their place. Sure, that worked for the purpose of that person never speaking like that in front of me, but my goal is not to bring someone fear of speaking. My goal should be to educate them instead. I think through education about refugees, who they are, and what they are about, I can make a difference. So my hope that by attending World Refugee Academy, I can learn ways to do just that: educate people on refugee rights. I hope to learn skills, strategies and effective ways of bringing more education to my community regarding these issues, and ways to speak to my elected officials about them and get their attention.
My passion for refugee and human rights lives in me; it is deep down in my heart, in my soul and my bones. Participating in the World Refugee Academy will not only be an honor, but it will teach me the tools I need to know in order to continue to educate people on refugee and human rights, to learn effective ways of fighting for those rights and to be able to help other refugees, who are just like me, find a place they can, too, call “home” again.
LIRS is proud to be hosting individuals for World Refugee Day Academy like Selena, who bravely share their stories of overcoming challenges. If you are a former refugee, we’d love to hear your story. If you live in a community with resettled refugees, tell us how a refugee has touched your life, or how your community welcomes refugees. We invite you to share your experience here.