LIRS’s 2015 LIRS Migrant and Refugee Leadership Academy is an extraordinary event which brings together migrant and refugee leaders from across the country. The Academy is supported by a planning committee of five Academy alumni. The planning committee advises on the Academy’s sessions and direction, assists in recruiting and vetting Academy participants, and facilitates training sessions during the event. In today’s post, one planning committee member, Selena Sujoldzic, a former refugee resettled by LIRS, tells how the Academy impacted her life and her hopes for this year’s participants.
This interview was conducted over email by Outreach Assistant, Janelle Fenyes.
Janelle Fenyes (JF): What drives you to advocate for migrants and refugees?
Selena Sujoldzic (SS): I am a former refugee myself. Even though it has been 20 years since LIRS helped my family and me resettle, I still remember the days when I was a 12-year-old girl without a voice loud enough to be heard. What inspires me today to advocate is exactly that memory. I want to be someone’s voice who doesn’t feel like they are being heard. I dealt with not having my story told for so long, but now I am capable and willing to lift someone else who needs lifting, to be someone’s warrior who is fighting against odds, and most importantly, to show new Americans they are worth fighting for. If I make a difference in just one person’s life, my energy and time was well spent.
JF: Tell us your reflections of the Academy last year. How has it impacted your advocacy for migrant and refugee rights?
SS: My participation in the Academy last year opened up a whole new world for me. It not only made me look back on my own journey and remember every goal reached and how it was reached, but it reignited that passion that was always within me to fight for refugee and migrant rights. It built my confidence in telling my story and it showed me how much impact and difference I can make by sharing my experience. I started building a network of people that share those experiences and gave me the opportunity to speak to government representatives who have the power to make the changes for which we are fighting. The Academy also provided me with tools to take back to my community and apply to my advocacy efforts on the local level. We have to take what we learn at the Academy back to our own neighborhoods and start with the change there.
JF: What motivated you to join the planning committee?
SS: I wanted the opportunity to offer what I have learned to other refugees and migrants who need to hear the experiences of other former refugees and migrants. One of many things I learned since becoming involved with LIRS is that almost all organizations who work with refugees and migrants wish to learn directly from us. Books, resources, statistics, and studies cannot replace knowledge gained by listening to former refugees or migrants’ personal experiences and ideas. I wanted the opportunity to participate in developing such an important event as this Academy in hope of doing for participants what the Academy did for me: reignite the passion for the cause.
JF: What do you see as the future of the Academy?
SS: The Academy will most certainly continue to grow each year. It will continue to train and shape individuals into strong leaders in this country. It will continue to serve as a tool for former refugees and migrants who want to make a positive difference in this country. The Academy is designed to gather diverse individuals together to emerge as leaders and individuals with a louder voice, more unified. The Academy will undoubtedly continue to do that for many years to come.
JF: What advice do you have for participants in this year’s Academy?
SS: Soak in every single moment of the Academy. This is your time. This is your moment. This is where you get to tell your story and where you will be heard. You will have the opportunity to speak to this country’s representatives, so make it count. Ask questions and take what you learn and make the changes you have been thinking and talking about.
Use this opportunity to reflect on your journey and how you can use that journey to help someone who was in your position. Use the tools offered to learn how to make an impact on a larger scale with government officials. Use the Academy to meet individuals who may become life-long friends after this trip. The Academy is designed for educational purposes, but try to see it as a personal victory as well: you are here.
You may still be hesitant about sharing your experiences, telling your story, or remembering some of the details of your past, but if you don’t go into this Academy with an open mind and keep an open mind, you are only robbing yourself of an experience that could make a change within you. After all, the change must start with you, with us, first.