Justine was one of the first refugees I worked with. She spoke no English and had never lived in a city before. While she was nervous about learning a new language and adjusting to a new culture and country, she was radiant with excitement. Through an interpreter, she explained to me that she couldn’t help but feel happy because she didn’t have to worry about what would happen to her the next day; she felt relieved to finally have a place to call home.
Over the course of 6 months, my colleagues and I worked with her to navigate her new home. We showed her how to buy food and take the bus. We helped her access medical care. We helped her enrol in English language courses and obtain her first job. No matter what we were working on, she was always eager to learn and challenge herself to get better.
What made her exceptional, though, was her desire to pay it forward. She quickly became a leader within her community by being one of the first people to welcome newly arrived refugees and by being a compassionate and supportive friend to everyone. Even when she was facing challenges herself, she was there to reassure her peers and help them feel empowered to overcome any hurdles they faced. I found it remarkable that she was always willing to put others before her and have come to understand that she is someone I wanted to be inspired by, too. In fact, whenever I find myself in a challenging situation, I often think about how she might respond.
It’s been almost a year since I first met Justine. She now speaks enough English to email me updates about what new words she learned in English class and what she did over the weekend. She was even recently promoted at work and is teaching others how to succeed at her place of employment. One year is a short period of time, but Justine is truly thriving, having transformed her tragedy into prosperity. She has reclaimed what she had lost—her basic human rights, their sense of dignity and respect, and a place to call home—and is even helping others achieve this, too.
Her story is of course one of many stories. Each refugee is a unique person who has their own voice and story to share. They are individuals like you and me, but due to exceptionally unfortunate situations have been pushed out of their homes. In fact, there are now over 21 million whose lives have been abruptly uprooted and every day nearly 34,000 new individuals are added to this staggering figure.
More importantly, though, refugees are people that we can and ought to learn from, as my experience with Justine and other refugees have taught me. Despite the destruction and despair they have witnessed and experienced first-hand, I have found that they are exceptionally resilient individuals who can change the way we approach our lives. By ensuring that refugees worldwide are welcomed and included in our communities, we can hear their stories and ultimately learn from them together.
This blog is part of the EU-funded "A Refugee Like Me" project, and you can read more about it here.
If Ami's words have moved you to act, please donate to our partner the Baytree Centre in London to help refugee women learn English and build new lives for themselves: