TEDxRVA event gives platform to refugee’s voices

Illustration by Ian duffus
Illustration by Ian duffus

A steady stream of nearly 100 people filtered into Impact Maker’s high vaulted, iron and brick mortar office space on the evening of Oct. 26 to attend TEDxRVA salon on addressing the process of resettlement for refugees who come to Richmond.

These events are called salons in order to communicate ideas of casual conversation which happen in people’s private spaces. The intent is localize broad topics and making them relatable to the Richmond area. Similarly, Thursday’s event, “Resettlement in Richmond,” wanted to localize a conversation on migration that is global in every sense.

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, as of 2016 there are 65.6 million forcibly displaced peoples, 22.5 million of that number are refugees. Of that number, only 183,900 refugees have been granted asylum and have resettled in other countries.

The UNHCR has declared that the world is in the midst of the  largest migrations in world history. The number seems to suggest the swell of displaced peoples will continue to rise and the divisive political tensions along with it which raises an important questions for communities throughout the globe: what does refugee resettlement look like and how is it achieved?

The event was hosted at Impact Makers, a management consult company where 100 percent of all net profits are sent back to the community via donations and other activities that the company hosts. This “giving back” business model falls in line with the theme of the night.

“I had been wanting to host this evening since January,” said TEDxRVA Community Lead, Patricia Bradby. “I started to watch multiple videos because there are so many videos on this topic that have been done at TED talks but I quickly realized that immigration and refugee issues are not one and the same and needed to be separated in discussion.”

As with previous salons, Resettling in RVA featured a video of a presentation done at the national, more well known TED conference. The video, titled, “Don’t feel sorry for refugees – believe in them,” was told by  Luma Mufleh — a resettled Jordanian refugee who’s moved to America fleeing persecution for her sexual orientation.

Mufleh recalls how even though she lived so close to massive refugee populations in Jordan she never interacted with them until forced to. Though financially privileged, Mufleh was still forced to flee.

She became an active voice in advocating for refugee resettlement after she began coaching refugee kids in America. It led her to the  realization that they fared better when they received support and agency from her and other institutions rather than them just receiving pity. Mufleh said she wants to challenge  the myth  that refugees are seeking handouts from people and argues that everyone wants to be an active member of society but they have to be given a chance to do so.

“We [America] resettle less than one percent of the world refugees,” Mufleh said in the video, “We have seen advances in every aspect of our lives, except our humanity.”

For Bradby, who watched hours of TED conference videos to find the right out to the fit the message of the salon, these were the words that hit her the most.

Bradby said that the main goal that TEDxRVA wanted to achieve was empowering the voices of refugees by allowing them to speak for themselves. Furthermore, Bradby said they wanted to push back against both negative dehumanizing stereotypes used disparage refugees and other migrants and  also wanted to challenge the narrative that people should help these groups of people with pity. Bradby hoped Resettlement in RVA would ultimately urge  people to help refugees and migrants  by actively listening to them and reaching out with what they said they need.  

“If anything, communities should be giving people a hands up, not a handout.” Bradby said, “We wanted to work within the community to see what that looks like and how it’s being done.

Following the video, attendees were randomly assigned into several groups where they discussed how the video impacted their understanding of displacement. The groups were led by a small group facilitator who helped moderate the discussions.

“We send a list of questions for the facilitators to ask because while they may know a lot, they aren’t trained to do public speaking so the questions are a guiding point,” Bradby said, “But we know people may just want a space to discussion their own perspectives and ask their own questions so the break out sessions allow that.”

Seyoum Berhe, the State Refugee Coordinator at Virginia Department of Social Services, was present in one the groups and utilized his own experience as a former refugee and his extensive academic and governmental experience in refugee work to address various questions.

“Fear is big factor in why people don’t take actions,” Berhe said. “They just fear the unknown. I’ve had many homes in my life and no matter where, I always find fear from people, it doesn’t always make sense.”

Berhe’s comment led into a discussion of what home means to themselves and what they believe home is for other people.

“It’s really having a place you are comfortable in, just a space you can be you and not worry about other factors making it harder for you to live” one woman said. “But we live in a society where we are scared to interact with people, so how can anyone else feel home?

The event transitioned into a Q&A round featuring the testimonies from three resettled refugees residing in Richmond who are originally from Afghanistan, Iraq and Rwanda. They each described the specific reasons as to why they sought asylum, how the process was achieved and the shaky territory of navigating their new communities.

Due to privacy concerns their names will remain anonymous, as will the specific details of their arrival.

“I was shocked at how quiet Richmond is,” said one speaker who came to America nine years ago, “I grew up in hustle and crowded cities but here it’s just quiet — it’s nice and different.”

This speaker spent part of their  life traveling and earned their  Bachelor’s degree  in English before forcibly leaving  their home country. They hopes to pursue a masters in the near future. Despite their academic and professional  background, finding  employment in the states was difficult.

“The hardest part was finding employment ” another speaker said echoing their experience. “You don’t get much to get started off with, your expected to have a job quickly, but no one will hire you because they don’t trust the experience you had previously in another country.”

Each of the speakers described the difficulty in navigating abuse they may face during their attempts to find employment. For each of them these difficulties were only exacerbated by complicated visa requirements and identification papers.

They also addressed the frustration of feeling pitied and how, as Bradby said, getting a handout isn’t as sustainable as receiving practical aid which includes access to a community and resources to train for employment.

“We want to work hard, we want to become members of the community and in many ways, we have but we don’t just want stuff from people,” said a speaker who came to the states in 2010. “I like the IRC because they helped me not only with paperwork but in learning how to do things in society and now I have my own career, my own friends and I help other people.

The International Rescue Committee is a refugee resettlement program with permanent offices in cities worldwide, including one in Richmond, and emergency offices in immediate areas of displacement concerns. The Commonwealth Catholic Charities was another non-profit which helped create the event.

“Every sixty minutes about 20 people are displaced from their homes so about 40 people will be displaced just in the time that we’re here this evening,” said Stephen Allen, the Site Manager at the IRC.“This is a high water moment and humanitarian crisis and it’s a time to be active and really demand that refugees are welcome.”


Siona Peterous, Spectrum editor

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