Refugee women share resettlement experiences at panel discussion

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Suavis Kanyange, left, Ghassak, middle left, and Aarati Ghimire, middle, listen as Vicky Chavez, middle right, shares her resettlement story with the help of her translator, right. (Hannah Miner)

Four refugee women shared their stories about resettling into the Salt Lake City area on Thursday night as part of the We Brave Women Lecture Series.

We Brave Women features a panel of women each month that addresses topics ranging from body positivity to surviving sexual assault. With members of the community sitting along the red, plush-lined pews of a church, Suavis Kanyange, Aarati Ghimire, Vicky Chavez and Ghassak (who asked her last name not be mentioned) spoke about the reality of life as a refugee.

Kanyange talked about her journey from her home country of Burundi to gaining asylum and citizenship in Italy. She eventually ended up in the U.S. after meeting her husband. Because of her background, accent and skin color, Kanyange said being a refugee is like “every single day you have to fit in a box which is not yours.”

According to the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, an estimated 60,000 refugees live in Utah with the majority residing in Salt Lake City. Cornell Law defines a refugee as a person who is currently outside of their country of nationality, or the last country in which they resided, who is unable or unwilling to return to that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution because of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a certain social group or political opinion.

Those seeking asylum must file a Form I-589, Application for Asylum and for Withholding of Removal, within one year of being in the United States. For resettlement, one must fill out an application then wait for an adjudication interview while resettlement support centers conduct information and security screenings.

Chavez, who is currently waiting for her asylum case to be reopened, spoke about her journey from Honduras to the U.S. Chavez said the decision to leave Honduras was not easy, but she was determined. Receiving a call at 8 a.m. about a bus leaving for the U.S., Chavez packed a bag, grabbed her two-year-old daughter and was gone by 2 p.m.

“On my back I carried a backpack with the necessary, in my arms I carried my life and in my heart the desire to be able to hug my parents after 27 years,” Chavez said.

Upon arriving in the U.S., Chavez cleaned hotel rooms and found refuge in the First Unitarian Church in Salt Lake City. Chavez said her biggest challenges are fighting the U.S. laws to show she is here because of necessity and learning to speak English. She said she loves America because of the possibilities.

“I love this country because of the opportunities my daughter can have and because I can walk the street without feeling someone is chasing me to hurt me,” Chavez said.

All of the women addressed stigmas surrounding refugees, from comments made to them about their accents to their physical appearance. One of those stigmas is that refugees are often assumed to be uneducated. Kanyange and Ghimire both have masters degrees and Chavez studied engineering before leaving Honduras.

“One thing I appreciate about my parents is they always forced education,” Ghirmire said.

After sharing their stories, audience members engaged in a question and answer session with the women. The women each said their ideas of the best ways to approach refugees included making them feel welcome and asking them questions.

Attendee Janelle Perkins said it’s important to remember refugees are real people, not just political pawns.

“When you’re sitting there looking at someone in their face, it changes the face of the problem,” Perkins said. “It becomes not nearly as simple as building a wall or making a law.”

To hear more stories of local refugees and how to help refugees in the Salt Lake City area visit www.rescue.org or www.womenofworld.org.

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