“I remember looking out my window one night. It was 2 a.m. but it seemed like 2 p.m. because it was so bright from the bombings,” said Mohammad Abdulraheem, an Iraqi refugee living in Seattle.
“In the Middle East everyday is like Thanksgiving. Sometimes life is too much work in America. Over there you have to have time to enjoy, to relax with your family,” said Zainah Hasan, another Seattle based Iraqi refugee.
The panel of refugee speakers gathered in a room at UW’s Odegaard Library on Friday, but the stories they told via video chat reached audiences as far away as San Paulo, Brazil, Doha, Qatar, Washington D.C., Chicago, and several other U.S. cities.
The speakers talked about leaving their home countries in search of lives away from war and conflict.
The event was part of the Refugee Story Circle project, organized by Three Chairs for Refugees, an organization that provides support for refugees and amplifies their voices by sharing stories, and Yallah, a group supported by the Qatar Foundation International that helps youth navigate national difference and address global issues to make this local chat global.
About forty people tuned in overall, ranging from UW students in a forced migration class, to high school students studying Arabic in Tucson, to Brazilian graduate students in International Relations and Journalism.
“I became a refugee because living in Iraq was really dangerous and people were dying for no reason,” said Mariam Mzahim, one of the storytellers. “We first settled in Jordan, but my dad would go back [to Iraq] for work sometimes. We were always worried when he left that it would be the last time we saw him.”
Another storyteller, Khagindra Rijal shared his experience of living at a refugee camp in Nepal. His family fled to Nepal from Bhutan because of religious conflict. He spoke of the low standard of living conditions in these camps, and how his family eventually made it America.
Members of the story circle from around the world were invited to ask the refugees questions. Many of them wanted to know more about what it was like to live as a refugee in America. Some of the storytellers expressed a sense of pride in being a part of the refugee community.
“Being a refugee doesn’t limit the opportunities for success for me, it’s something I’m proud of,” said Abdulraheem.
Others expressed the idea that refugee shouldn’t be a label; it’s just one aspect of their multi-dimensional lives.
“It’s not a name tag that you put on,” said Dania Mzahim, another storyteller. “I think anybody in that position would do the same thing — try to save their family. Sometimes it means leaving everything behind like my dad did… for his children to have this normal life that is very rare back in Iraq.”
The Seattle refugee storytellers also shared sentiments of struggling to fit in when they first came to the U.S. because cultural and religious differences.
“Living in the U.S. as a Muslim is not always easy,” said Abdulraheem. “This is our second country, but sometimes my Iraqi schoolmates and I feel discriminated against. The first amendment states that we can live freely regardless of our religion, I wish some people would remember that.”
Hasan shared her optimistic perspective on fitting in in America.
“Wherever you go you’ll see bullies, but there are good people too. I’ve met people who want to learn more about my culture and my language. In every country you’ll find a bad person and a good one,” she said.
Many of the storytellers expressed their gratitude for the opportunities in America.
“Coming to America has given me this freedom to go above and beyond what I could do in my country,” said Rijal. “Growing up in Nepal, the ideal career is to be a teacher. Here, I am a student at the UW and I am hoping to become a doctor.”
Despite the conflict in their home countries, many of the storytellers said they want make the most of their American education, but return to their home countries to use their knowledge to help to their communities.
“I’d like to go home and start a hospital one day, we didn’t have one in Nepal,” Rijal said.
Hasan said she would also like to return to her country one day. She explained that the Iraqi way of life is to help others, to give more than you take. She would like to remind her people of this.
“Iraq is a good place but the people there don’t always see it. The Iraqi people give more then they get, that’s their way… Our way is to to get everyone to love each other, not to hate each other, not to kill each other,” Hasan said.
It was nearing ten p.m. in Qatar when the global discussion wrapped up. Dania Mzahim closed with word of wisdom beyond that of a typical fifteen year old. She encouraged any refugee, or anyone struggling to fit in, to take initiative right away.
“If you keep being shy, thinking ‘maybe next year is going to be better,’ it wont be. Not unless you want it to be better,” she said. “If you keep being afraid of making mistakes, it’s not going to work… But when you try, the opportunities are limitless.”