As the latest installment of its pop-up series, the World Affairs Council of Kentucky and Southern Indiana hosted a panel of three refugees in its new Portland office Tuesday night. Moderator Antigona Mehani was joined by Djenita Pasic, Van Tran and Firas Hamza, all residents of Louisville, to discuss their experiences as refugees, each obtaining their status 20 or more years ago.
The goal of these events, and a mission of WAC, the group says, is to provide a space and forum for dialogue surrounding international issues without presenting a political or moral stance. Instead, WAC says, it offers an opportunity for speakers to engage with the community and share experiences.
Mehani, a member of the WAC board and an Employment Services Manager at Kentucky Refugee Ministries is a refugee herself, arriving in the United States as a teenager fleeing genocide in Kosovo.
Pasic was stranded in the United States while visiting friends for the Kentucky Derby as war broke out in Bosnia and Herzegovina, preventing her family from returning home.
Tran escaped Vietnam as a 19-year-old, spending six days at sea before finding herself in a refugee camp in Thailand.
Hamza planned his family’s escape from Iraq after the Gulf War, finding someone to help his father leave Iraq to go to Turkey, where he applied for refugee status to the U.S. — Hamza and the rest of his family were smuggled out shortly after.
Mehani began the forum by citing information from the United Nations — there are more than 65 million refugees and asylum seekers who spend 18 to 24 months in an interview process to get to their nation of refuge. From there, the four discussed their personal experiences coming to the U.S. and navigating American society.
“I grew up wanting to come to the U.S. We left everything behind. We came here with nothing and were fortunate enough to have the opportunity to work really hard and establish ourselves and build something for us here. Build a new life. That’s something that we all are grateful for,” Hamza said. America, he added, has “integrated Arabs and Muslims better than any European country because America is a melting pot.”
Hamza described a recent plane trip in which he sat beside a man holding a folded American flag. He described how the man, from Eastern Kentucky, gave him an apprehensive look. “Being on a plane these days as an Arab is not always [easy],” Hamza joked. He struck up a conversation with the man and found that they had more shared experiences than either could have realized.
In 2003, Hamza said he knew he wanted to help efforts to overthrow the Iraqi dictatorship. He returned to Iraq as a civilian contractor, working to organize the Iraqi military. It was then that Hamza and his fellow passenger first crossed paths. They worked in the same unit in Iraq almost 15 years ago and were both there when a suicide bomber attempted to attack the group. Through that interaction, two strangers who outwardly look very different shared a profound experience.
Today, Hamza works for Microsoft and stressed that America’s ability to offer equal opportunity is a key element in the success of refugees. “Despite the political climate,” he said, “we have the same opportunities here, just like everyone else.”
“America is too beautiful and too big to fail,” Pasic said. “I don’t think that I would have ever been given the opportunity [anywhere else] because I was treated like an equal my entire life in Louisville, Ky. I have lived in this place longer than any other place in my life. I’m very happy to be part of this community, I never plan to leave it.”
Pasic, a Muslim Bosnian remembers 9/11 and the aftermath. “When September 11 happened, that was quite a shock and it was a scary feeling. We really didn’t have any backlash, though,” Pasic said. She credits a portion of that to President George W. Bush. “I think that he contained, in the way that he addressed the nation at the time, any kind of backlash” toward Muslims. “It could have been much worse,” she said.
Today is different, she said. “I’m very disheartened today to see that today the situation is changing. I do understand that the world is a much more dangerous place today… I’m just hoping that we don’t go in the wrong direction as a country. I have witnessed what that kind of hate speech and religiously motivated speeches have created in my own country, that fell apart for no reason. No one is really better off today than they were before the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I just hope that this doesn’t happen to this beautiful place.”
Listen to Mehani and Hamza discuss navigating multiple cultures in the audio clip below:
“I believe in integration,” Tran said. “I came here when I was almost 20 and it was easier for me and young people to adapt to new culture than the older ones. However, I’m still trying to keep the best of both cultures for my family, for my children. It’s not easy. When children are born here, grow up here with peers and go to school, come home with the language that we speak — it’s not easy.
“At this point, after 32 years, I’m still trying to communicate with my children because they have an American mind-set and they expect more even though I’ve shared with them how difficult [it is] where I came from… I’ve learned that here communication between children and parents is two-way, but it’s not like that in my country… Here, I see the communication in a family, that makes us great, that makes us grow. I really value integration. It’s an ongoing struggle. We’re still learning and trying every day.”
“We have a daughter, we came here when she was almost 6,” Pasic said. “She’s a product of this city, 100 percent. She went through the public school system… In our culture, education is the most important factor. To this day, education is still the most important factor, especially because of the war. Especially because of the fact that the only thing that cannot be taken away from you is your education. You can lose your home. You can lose your country. You can lose your passport. You can lose everything in life, but if you have education you can probably be better off anywhere. That’s been proven for me, for my husband and now for my daughter.”
While immigrants and refugees may struggle to find parallels in language, customs and values, they also pick up new things in America, the panel discussion revealed.
“I’ve learned one concept that I did not know in my country and that is volunteer. That has stuck with me since coming to the refugee camp in Thailand,” said Tran, as she described American volunteers in the camp. “[I told myself], ‘I’ll be a volunteer for the rest of my life once I get to my third country.’ ”
After meeting Vietnam War veterans who returned home under a cloud of public disapproval, Tran thanked soldiers for their service and was later able to organize a dinner through Crane House to formally thank an entire VFW lodge. Now, Tran has been able to lead an effort to erect a Vietnam War monument in Jeffersontown’s Memorial Park.
Today, Tran’s daughter serves in the U.S. military and returned to the United States last week from service in Afghanistan.
Pasic told a story of her own daughter, who recently referred to a co-worker as “too Bosnian.” To her, that meant too loud, too opinionated, all the things her mother saw as the good parts of being Bosnian. “Thank God for this country that accepts us, too Bosnian or not,” she laughed.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly described Firas Hamza’s father’s escape from Iraq. His father first went to Turkey before seeking refugee status in the U.S.
WAC’s next pop up, “Trump and China: War or Peace in Asia,” will be on Tuesday, Feb. 28 at the University of Louisville University Club.