Refugee Congress: The Power of a True Story

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KaoNinaRefugeeCongress
Kao and Nina in front of the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, DC.

It is pretty hard to be anti-refugee when a refugee is in your office, sharing their story, and making it clear just how woven into the fabric of American society they are. The refugee might be a high school senior in Denver, or running for mayor in Montana, or a practicing attorney with three children in northwestern Arkansas.

This year, I was lucky enough to be a part of UNHCR’s Annual Refugee Congress Advocacy in Action Day in Washington D.C. Refugee Congress is an advocacy organization comprised of refugees, asylum-seekers, and stateless persons from across the U.S. who seek to champion domestic and international refugee issues. There is a delegate from every state, and the delegates work tirelessly throughout the year to advocate on behalf of refugees in their local communities and beyond.

Every year UNHCR brings the 50 delegates together in Washington D.C. for several days of training and advocacy. Each delegate is paired with a refugee services’ professional from the local D.C. area, and together the pairs engage in meetings with the refugees’ elected representatives in Congress.

LIRS was well represented this year by delegates and volunteers. The delegates from North Dakota and from Colorado were both Unaccompanied Refugee Minors resettled by LIRS, and the delegate from Montana, Wilmot Collins, is an LIRS Board Member. The delegate from Arkansas was Kao Vang Lee, who has worked with LIRS over the past year.

LIRS has been busy in Arkansas this year, working with Canopy Northwest Arkansas to open a new resettlement site in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Kao has been a supporter of Canopy’s work. Last Thursday I was lucky enough to spend the day in meetings with Kao, and I saw firsthand how powerful it is for a refugee to tell his or her story. When Kao told her story, not one elected official looked her in the face and told her they did not support resettlement.

Kao came to the United States in 1980 as a Hmong refugee from Laos when she was a young child. After the Vietnam War ended, the Hmong were targeted by Lao communist forces for their support of the United States involvement in Southeast Asia. Kao’s family escaped to Thailand where they were placed into refugee camps and then resettled to Portland, Oregon.

Kao at Refugee Congress
Kao stands in front of the U.S. Capitol building.

Her family relocated a few years later to join a larger Hmong community in California. The experiences she faced growing up as a refugee, assimilating to American culture, and helping Hmong elders navigate the complexity of legal, medical and social systems have uniquely shaped her path. She attended the University of California, Davis where she was actively involved in the Hmong community as well as the larger Southeast Asian community, advocating for recruitment and retention efforts at the University. For her efforts, she received the Mary Jeanne Gilhooly Award for most outstanding senior woman in the areas of leadership, scholarship, integrity, and service in the UC Davis campus community.

After relocating to Arkansas, she attended law school at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, where she continued her work with the Southeast Asian community by helping to form a nonprofit organization to support Southeast Asian farmers in the area. Today, she is a licensed attorney in Arkansas with three young children of her own.

After hearing Kao’s story the Senators had questions, but Kao and I were able to answer them. We had very productive conversations with both Senators from Arkansas around the life-saving work LIRS does on behalf of refugees.

Refugee Congress’ Advocacy in Action Day is one of the most important days in Washington. It empowers refugees and other forced migrants, and it allows those who might speak out against refugees to hear firsthand the stories of their new neighbors and constituents. Refugee resettlement changes lives and protects those most in need, and it brings out the best in America, something Kao’s story demonstrates so powerfully.

LIRs is proud that we participated in Refugee Congress, proud to call Kao a friend, and proud of our work in Arkansas.


Nina Zelic is Director for Refugee Resettlement at LIRS.

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