Joseph Lewis, a former refugee from Liberia, a 2014 LIRS World Refugee Day Academy participant and an officer in the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Transit Police Department, is a strong voice for perseverance and hope among vulnerable populations in Washington, D.C. After fleeing a civil war in his home country and overcoming a challenging new beginning as a resettled refugee in the United States, Joseph built a new life for himself with the helping hand of a Lutheran pastor and church members. Today, Joseph is a leader in his community mentoring inner-city youth, telling his story in local schools and helping the homeless. Joseph will be a leader in this year’s Academy.
This interview was conducted over email by LIRS Outreach Assistant, Janelle Fenyes.
Janelle Fenyes (JF): What is your background?
Joseph Lewis (JL): I was born and raised in Liberia, migrated to the Ivory Coast for refuge, and lived nine tormenting years there experiencing the edge of not knowing what the future holds, while wondering daily why I had to endure such struggle. With that said, I truly appreciate my experience because it has taught me to appreciate life and accomplishment.
As a community leader, my goal is to help refugees understand that there is hope in striving for the best. Of course, this has a direct relation to my personal experience as a person who was once homeless to a person who finds appreciation at every opportunity. In short, my message to my community is as such: in striving we honor sacrifice.
JF: You have demonstrated a strong commitment to investing in youth in your community. What inspires and motivates you?
JL: This is an interesting question because it addresses my dualism in a sense that I am both practical and spiritual. First, I believe that the greatest discovery anyone can make is discovering who he or she is, in terms of potential. That has been the main idea that has inspired me over the years because every youth and young adult needs to discover who they are and their potential. I guess that will be the practical aspect of it; but the spiritual aspect which motivates me can be attributed to the fact that each one of us is the spoken word of God. The Bible says that during creation, He spoke and things came into existence; so I believe that God spoke every man and woman into existence with a purpose. It is that purpose that motivates me because I believe my life experience can definitely help someone rise beyond their confines and presumed limitations.
JF: How have the Lutheran church and church members influenced your life?
JL: In my opinion, what the Lutheran church does is an epitome of the true meaning of humanity. Many folks within the Lutheran church have dedicated their lives to helping people who cannot help themselves. I have always asked this question: who are we if we do not stand for something? I guess the Lutheran church has not only answered the question, but has demonstrated what sacrifice is all about. When addressing your first question, I mentioned my message to youth, which says, in striving we honor sacrifice; for me, the Lutheran church has influenced me throughout the years by its sacrifice and dedication to changing lives.
JF: What was your impression of the 2014 LIRS World Refugee Day Academy and how has the experience influenced your work as a leader in your community?
JL: When dealing with your community, it is easy to assume that you are a lone soldier striving for the best. However, my connection with LIRS, especially the 2014 Academy, was an eye opener. During that training, I learned that there are more people in this fight for a better tomorrow. After listening to some of the personal stories shared with other attendees, I was touched and ebullient to strive for the best, even in the face of disappointment, one which impacts many motivated and passionate refugees.
JF: What advice would you give to new refugees to make their resettlement experience more uplifting?
JL: This one is very important to me because I love to share my advice with everyone. However, since you have limited to it to refugees, I will limit my answer to two aspects, perseverance and hope. Perseverance, for me, entails striving for a better opportunity. This means refugees will have to be humble, and pursue formal education if they need to succeed. Some refugees get discouraged because they are not able to work in a career path they once worked because of limitations established by the American system, while some have to return to school and acquire more accreditation, but the goal and mindset of each refugee should be the willingness to do whatever it takes to achieve their dream. So my advice to my fellow refugees is do not lose the hope you once had and persevere until you reach that goal; for, it is in striving we honor the sacrifice of those who believe in us!
The 2015 Migrant and Refugee Leadership Academy will be held from June 16-18. This will be the third annual Academy for LIRS, one that marks an important expansion to include migrant leaders for the first time. Migrant and refugee leaders will have the opportunity to come together to share experiences, connect and hone the skills necessary to co-advocate on issues of importance to both communities. Stay tuned for stories from this year’s participants.