Fighting Misconceptions and Misinformation to Help Immigrants to Navigate Their New Lives in America

Stories from the field | Nov 17, 2023 02:11 am

By Kayo Beshir, a former Oromo refugee and community leader who recently moved to D.C. from Tennessee to attend graduate school at American University.

As an Oromo refugee living in Tennessee, I have spent my life helping immigrants integrate into an American society that has increasingly turned hostile because of misinformation and misunderstanding. The reality is that gaining refugee status is even more difficult than being accepted into elite universities like Harvard, and we have been through extraordinarily difficult circumstances that forced us to navigate a new language, culture, and life simply to achieve safety. The resettlement process is lengthy and difficult already. And while the Biden administration continues to delay its promiseof admitting 62,500 refugees in fiscal year 2021, thousands of U.S. families remain divided as their loved ones remain in the pipeline indefinitely. They can only hope that the new Presidential Determination on Refugee Admissions, expected next month, are in line with a true target that exceeds the backlog of people in a purgatory caused by continued broken promises. Refugees are not a threat, and I know that many immigrants like me feel a sense of wanting to help our new neighbors and others in the situation we have faced.

In my case, the Ethiopian-Eritrean war pushed my ethnic group, the Oromo, into Kenya in 1998 when I was a toddler. At the time, my father was imprisoned, so my mother, my 15 siblings and myself struggled for years in Kenya, then Uganda, until our refugee application was finally accepted and we headed to the United States. By then, it was 2006, and I was finally able to reconnect with my father, who had been previously granted safety in the U.S. as an asylee. Thanks to the opportunities granted to us here, my family was together again in peace. Since then, I have attended public schools and university, and this fall I will be beginning my master’s degree in International Peace and Conflict Resolution at American University because I want to continue to help the people pushed from their homes for reasons beyond their control, and help them integrate into this new American life that has given my family so much.

Service to our adopted country has always been important to us. I started the Oromo Youth Association and work as a multicultural coordinator at the Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRRC); meanwhile, my siblings are nurses, one is practicing to be a dentist, others are in school, and we are all active in our community mosques. In my role at TIRRC, I work with over 100 communities that speak over a hundred languages and work to integrate them into the U.S. Even after I’m done with work, I get many desperate calls each day about someone else who needs help with their immigration application or other issue, and I feel thankful to be able to help with this while also working to kill anti-immigrant bills in Tennessee. In this state, we are in a unique position to make sure these xenophobic and dangerous bills don’t reach the level of the White House.

By the time I ended up in Tennessee I was a preteen, so learning the language and culture of the U.S. in school was likely easier for me than it is for many and I quickly had to step up as a translator for many in my community. The state of Tennessee, and in many respects America as a whole, is a resource desert for immigrants. Like many Americans know, navigating the American healthcare and financial systems can be difficult, so you can only imagine what it is like for a new immigrant who has only dealt with these issues in countries that have very different systems than we have here.

Meanwhile, the media portrays refugees and asylum seekers as threats or scapegoats for legislators to gain points and attack our communities. We see this play out daily at our border, and it is inhumane to ignore suffering because of baseless fears stoked by politicians and media outlets pushing false information or spinning the facts. That is why efforts like the Opportunity For All campaign, spearheaded by We Are All America, are important — only the voices of those with lived experience as a refugee or asylum seeker truly understand the needs of their communities and they must be at the table when decisions are made about immigrants in this country.

America needs more education around who we are, what we are, and why we are here. From the differences between refugees and asylum seekers, to the diverse cultural backgrounds we represent, and the factors that forced us to seek resettlement — there is so much that the public narrative around immigration is missing. At the same time, America is considered the global leader of democracy, but we are not even practicing it at home. Many countries are looking up to us, and the interconnectedness of our world has never been more apparent. We must do better for immigrants in this country, and fight misinformation to ease the integration of our new neighbors into this place we all call home.

We Are All America is a refugee organizing alliance housed under the National Partnership for New Americans (NPNA). We Are All America works to uphold and strengthen our nation’s commitment to welcome and protect those seeking freedom, safety and refuge in the United States. We organize people across religious and cultural differences to build inclusive communities where we all belong. In addition to NPNA, We Are All America’s national partners include Alianza Americas, International Rescue CommitteeChurch World ServiceHuman Rights First, Refugee Congress, the Refugee Advocacy Lab, Refugee Council USA, andWelcoming America.