Seeing refugees as individuals with skills, hopes and dreams

by Zeljana Javorek

When my family arrived in Louisville as refugees from Bosnia, Catholic Charities welcomed us and provided the help we needed to thrive in our new home. The agency’s Migration and Refugee Services program supported us through every aspect of resettlement: from finding housing and employment to enrolling my child in school.

While I was attending English as a Second Language classes at Catholic Charities, a position in the children’s program became available, and I was offered a job. Two decades later, I’m now the ESL program manager, a job that provides me with the opportunity to always meet new faces, including refugee students, volunteers and community partners, and teaches me the beauty of diversity and the value of the community engagement.

When you work in an ESL program, you take part in the lives of refugees as they learn the language and skills to transition into American society. Through my own journey to become a U.S. citizen, as well as through my work, I have learned that integration takes time and is successful only when relations between refugees and the community are based on trust and time is invested in educating, listening and communicating. Understanding the diverse backgrounds of refugees and how they can enrich our communities provides better perspective on resettlement and contributes to unbiased conversations.

Refugees should be seen as individuals with skills, hopes and dreams like anyone else. Listening to them, I learn much more than the details of their struggles and their tragedies. I travel the world and learn about different places, cultures, traditions and beliefs. I learn to reflect and change the way I approach my own life.

I have learned so much from my refugee students as they transition from suffering to prosperity, maintaining their own culture while at the same time adapting. I’ve learned the benefit of community engagement and its effect on the lives of others. It has taught me to notice the kindness of people and how small gestures mean a lot when you start your life over.

Understanding the individual needs of our clients helps our Migration and Refugee Services team provide the right support. I’m so proud of our work when I hear client success stories and the positive impact they have on our community: from hard-working parents supporting their families to their children excelling in school and going on to college. I celebrate stories about refugees who manage to integrate yet retain their cultural identities — all while lifting each other up and contributing to the communities in which they now live.

I am grateful for a society that is still welcoming refugees until there is a better solution for the refugee crisis in the world. The Migration and Refugee Services department is the most diverse department of Catholic Charities. Our work is the representation of our faith and our humanity and the response to the legacy of a country in which we are proud to live.
Pope Francis has called on us all to share the journey with those who have been displaced. His Holiness said: “Migrants and refugees are not pawns on the chessboard of humanity. They are children, women and men who leave or who are forced to leave their homes for various reasons, who share a legitimate desire for knowing and having, but above all for being more”.

Zeljana Javorek is the ESL program manager at Migration and Refuge Services at Catholic Charities of Louisville.

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