Refugees Raise Voices to Push for Racial Justice

By Sarah Schafer in New York and Matthew Mpoke Bigg in London. With contributions from Kristy Siegfried in Oxford, UK, and Gabriella Reis in Brasília. | UNHCR*

The police brutality that sparked protests in the United States and beyond reminds some refugees of the bigotry they fled — and sometimes still encounter in places they now call home. Here are some of their voices.

Linda Kana, 28, is an American and former refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She has participated in the Black Lives Matter demonstrations. ©UNHCR/Nina Niragire

When protests erupted in the United States over the killing of George Floyd, Pastor Yves Kalala vowed to lead his mostly white church in a village in Ontario, Canada, in tackling unconscious bias in its ranks.

Yves’ decision to broach the issue with his congregation and fellow pastors took courage. He grew up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and came to Canada in 2007 as a refugee. Intolerance forced him to flee his home country, he said, and it pained him to see it in his adopted land.

“It’s been tough but finally … many pastors are willing to touch this topic,” he said.

The church and his denomination have made a fresh commitment to fight racism and agreed to produce new training videos on the issue for leaders.

Like Yves, refugees in various parts of the world are seizing the moment to spur dialogue on racial discrimination in the communities they now call home. It is an issue many refugees know all too well.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi on the painful consequences of discrimination

Persecution based on race is a significant driver of displacement in many parts of the world, and it affects many refugees even after they’ve fled to another country in search of safety. The 1951 Refugee Convention explicitly recognizes racial persecution as grounds for refugee status.

The anti-racism protests began in late May when a video went public showing a white police officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes while other officers stood by. Floyd, who was Black, died.

The demonstrations quickly spread to hundreds of cities across the United States — and as far away as Germany, Japan and New Zealand. Many refugees around the world are also speaking up, taking part and reflecting on their own experiences, both in their native countries and their new homes.


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Prudence Kalambay, 39, fled the DRC and lives in Brazil. “It is very important for people to be aware of the damage done,” she said. ©UNHCR/Miguel Pachioni

Prudence Kalambay, 39, was forced to flee the DRC after she became the target of political persecution and now lives in São Paulo, Brazil. A former political worker and beauty queen, Prudence had only seen Brazil on soap operas before arriving in 2008. The reality was nothing like what she saw on television, she said. As a pregnant, Black refugee and woman, she faced discrimination.

After joining Empowering Refugees, a programme supported by UNHCR Brazil and other partners that advocates for women, she realized her own story could be a source of inspiration for other refugees, mothers and Black women. Now she works as an artist and human rights speaker and plans to study international relations. She is grateful for the Black Lives Matter movement.

“It is very important for everyone to be aware of the damage done … to Black people,” she said. “For me, the meaning of this movement is… to change the system. We want social equity, a guarantee of our rights.”

Lourena Gboeah, 32, took her three-year-old daughter to a Black Lives Matter demonstration in her hometown of Newark, Delaware, in the United States (she said she kept her distance from other marchers due to concerns about COVID-19).

As a Black mother, she worries for her family. The uncertain times, she said, makes her think of what her own mother felt when she fled war in Liberia in the 1990s. Every time her 23-year-old stepson leaves the house, she said, she tells him not to wear a “hoodie,” the sweatshirt and wardrobe staple that some people associate with criminality, depending on who is wearing it.

Lourena Gboeah, 32, fled Liberia with her family as a young child. Every time her stepson leaves the house, she tells him not to wear a “hoodie.” ©UNHCR/Emir Lake

“My parents were older refugees and they didn’t know how things work here. They weren’t able to educate me on the fact I had to work extra, extra hard… The schools weren’t teaching me about the inherent or contextual racism in this country,” said Lourena, who now serves as a delegate to the Refugee Congress, a U.S.-based advocacy organization. She hopes to instill in her own children the wisdom she lacked growing up. “I’m able to help them understand what issues to look out for.”

Linda Kana, 28, an American citizen living in Lexington, Kentucky, recalls feeling welcomed when she arrived in the U.S. as a refugee from the DRC. Everyone smiled, she recalled, which she found charming and new. But she experienced both subtle and overt racism, she said. A few people asked her if Africans shower.

One patient she cared for in her former job as a medical assistant told her that her hair could be used to mop the floor. (Linda said she wears her hair naturally in America, having given up the relaxant she used when she was younger, to show people that she loves her hair).

Linda, who also serves as a representative to the Refugee Congress, said that seeing videos of police officers killing Black people made her feel she was not safe even after her family fled the DRC. She now participates in the demonstrations and hopes to make the country safe for her cousins, nieces and nephew who are also here.

“It’s pretty emotional seeing somebody who is supposed to protect you killing someone who looks like you,” said Linda, who now works as a translator for refugees and hosts a community radio show on African music and culture. “It kind of woke up the tragedy I saw at home. I spent 10 years running. I wasn’t safe.”

Some refugees said they empathized with the Black Lives Matter movement and wanted to show support.

Heval Kelli, 37, is a former Syrian refugee working as a cardiologist in Atlanta, Georgia. He helped organize a Black Lives Matter protest. ©UNHCR/Tomesha Faxio

Heval Kelli, 37, is a former Syrian refugee working as a cardiologist in Atlanta, Georgia. Now a naturalized citizen, he organized a protest in the nearby suburb of Clarkston. He noted that the American Civil Rights movement led to legislative changes that helped more refugees and immigrants rebuild their lives in the United States.

“My people faced oppression due to our Kurdish identity and we believe in the words of Martin Luther King: ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,’” said Kelli, who graduated from the Morehouse School of Medicine, which was originally part of Morehouse College, the historically Black institution in Atlanta where Martin Luther King once studied. “I am standing up against injustice because I want my children to grow up in peace and not be judged based on their backgrounds or looks.”

Some refugees said finding their place in the current movement took time. Amelie Fabian, 24, fled Rwanda as a small child and lived with her family for years as a refugee in the south-east African nation of Malawi. She arrived in Canada as a student when she was 18, and it was there that she first heard of the Black Lives Matter movement. She is now taking a year of study in Paris, where she has joined the protests.

“My first reaction was to shut down,” she said. “And most of my friends, that’s what they were doing. They were like, ‘We are African, this does not concern us,’ but the reality is it does concern us because once we get to the Western world, we’re no longer African, we are Black.”

Amelie Fabian, 24, fled Rwanda and became a Canadian citizen. “Once we get to the Western world, we’re no longer African, we are Black.” ©UNHCR/Michelle Siu

Amelie plans to return to Canada to finish her Master’s degree in public policy and global affairs this summer. Her goal, she said, is to return to Canada and work in service or government to make the country safer and more equitable for all who live there.


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“Initially I just wanted to get educated and go back to Africa and try to solve problems on the continent, which I felt was home. But since becoming a Canadian I finally feel like I have a home, and I’m inclined to serve the community in Canada,” she said. Becoming a citizen, she added, “just gives you back your human dignity, which I feel at the end of the day is what most refugees are looking for.”


2020 Human Wrongs Watch



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