‘I Cannot Just Sit and Watch’– Former Refugee From the Congo Breaks Down Barriers in California

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Sedrick and San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, during his speech at the University of California San Diego on refugees issues.
Sedrick and San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis, after his speech at the University of California San Diego on refugee issues.

I’m honored to share an interview with Sedrick Ntwali, documentarian, soccer coach, advocate, and former refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Sedrick is a beacon in his community, working tirelessly to help refugees navigate our country’s complicated systems and feel confident in their new home. This interview was conducted by Juliet Sohns, LIRS Outreach Program Intern.

Juliet Sohns (JS)You founded Young African Refugees for Integral Development (YARID) and coach soccer teams to address problems related to ethnic violence, youth unemployment, public health, and conflict resolution. What keeps you motivated to work on behalf of your fellow resettled refugees?

Sedrick Ntwali (SN):  My motivation comes from my past experience. My family and I experienced the same situation that fellow refugees are facing today. I feel I need to open up my hands and help others as much as I can. Once, I felt the same pain. I faced the same issues. I witnessed the struggle of refugees. I cannot just sit and watch. I consider that their problems are mine as well.

I was also highly motivated and encouraged by the LIRS World Refugee Day Academy last June 2014, which made me do more for my community on top of what I was doing. Because of all the motivations I got from the advocacy effort by LIRS, I got the opportunity to speak out and address the issues of refugees to different stakeholders in San Diego and even to local newspapers and radio stations.

JS: You are a strong advocate for refugees in the United States, primarily in San Diego. What issues do you see resettled refugees dealing with on a daily basis and how is your community mobilizing to address them?

SN: There are several issues that refugees are dealing with daily here in San Diego:

Integration – especially for adults and seniors who are trying to navigate a new city and new environment different from where they are from. There are also cultural issues where the American culture is totally different from their country of origin, and they find it hard to cope.

Language barriers – one of the biggest issues. A refugee must speak English to be successful in America, especially to get a job. Even though they go to ESL (English as a second language) classes it takes too long for them to learn. Some refugees may spend four to five years only learning English.

Lack of jobs – in San Diego it’s not easy to find a quick job. Because of this harsh reality, many refugees are disappointed because they cannot work to support their families and pay their bills. Even if we see the great work of refugee organizations in place, I will also mention that there is still a huge work and effort that still needs to be done for refugees in San Diego.

I try to support my fellow refugees one by one as I can, especially Congolese. When new families arrived, I would help them navigate the complicated systems here. I would go with them to appointments for food stamps and other benefits. These places can be so intimidating and feel demoralizing, especially if you are new to it all.

The other big part of work I’ve been doing is advocating for improved access to education in local high schools where refugees attend. Many refugees are resettled in the same low-income neighborhoods and their kids are placed at schools with few resources. Refugee children need special attention. Many of these kids have had their education disrupted by conflict, so they are behind their age group.

Since last year I’ve been working with other local advocacy and community organizing groups in the neighborhood of City Heights trying to engage parents in their kids’ schools and appealing to education system officials for changes.

JS: You have shown remarkable interest in how social media can be used as a tool to create change. How did this influence your first documentary, Urban Refugee, and how has your thought process evolved for your next documentary about how Americans perceive refugees and the positive contributions refugees have in their communities?

SN: Of course in today’s world, social media is playing a big role, and for me I felt this was a huge opportunity to show and to raise awareness about refugee issues.

I am now working on my second documentary that will show the positive contributions of refugees in America, to break the stereotypes on how people often perceive refugees. In this second documentary I want to show people how refugees are not burdens, but a huge asset. I believe that there is no better way of doing this if not producing a documentary that shows the practical things that many people are not aware about concerning refugees. Using social media like YouTube, Facebook, and other venues will be the perfect way of sharing this story. The goal is not only to break common stereotypes, but educate people to have a positive view of refugees in America.

JS: What advice would you give to people, whether other resettled refugees or those who are interested to work on their behalf, who want to help improve the lives of resettled refugees and the possibilities for their futures?

SN: Those who are interested to work and improve the lives of refugees resettled in the United States should know that no one wants to be a “refugee.” Becoming a refugee is not a choice but due to circumstances. Treating refugees well and considering them as equal as others is very important in helping to improve their future lives. Sometimes if people know you are a “refugee” they can see you negatively. This happened to me when I first arrived to the United States. People who were trying to help me were the first ones to treat me differently. I felt like a stranger, like I had been branded and my name was “refugee,” not Sedrick.

For refugees either resettled or still in a 2nd country of refugee, I would advise them to be strong and keep their motivations high. Don’t allow your circumstances to define who you are. Be you at your best. Also, working hard and contributing positively to the country of resettlement or asylum is very important and will take lots of hard work and dedication, but you can succeed!

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