Refugee women discuss personal experiences, challenges

The Center for Community and Women’s Action Coalition marked Women’s History Month with an event focusing on refugee women. While three women spoke live about their experiences, the presenters also read anonymous accounts. The event concluded with a question and answer session between the students and the speakers. (Ellayna Fredericks/Staff Photographer)

Geneseo’s Center for Community and Women’s Action Coalition hosted a discussion on the stories of refugee women in Bailey Hall to celebrate Women’s History Month on Sunday March 26. During the event, moderators shared anonymous accounts from female refugees, which was followed by a live panel where panelists presented their stories.  

Emphasizing the experiences of female refugees, the discussion featured both live speakers as well as the stories from women who did not feel comfortable attending in person. Among the women who presented their stories live at the event, two out of three came from the Geneseo community. 

Speaking about her experience as a Bosnian refugee, Alma Omerhodzic—now living in Fairport, New York—emphasized her volunteer work with current Muslim refugee professor of art history Lynette Bosch. 

Bosch also discussed her journey as a young refugee coming from Cuba and French major senior Nathalie Kalumbwe—now living in Rochester—offered the perspective of a Congolese refugee. 

Before the live panelists spoke, the moderators read anonymous refugee stories of women from Russia, Honduras and Thailand. While the narratives differed in specifics, each account featured a common theme: exigency that forced them to escape their home countries. 

After hearing the stories from women who did not want to speak publicly, participants assembled in a circle to facilitate a group discussion with the panelists. First, the panelists shared their experiences by addressing a question about the most challenging aspect of coming to the United States. 

“I came here as a teenager, so I might have a different experience,” Kalumbwe said. “But my main challenge was that before, I never thought of my race ever. When I came to America, I faced the compartmentalization of being a minority and the intersectionality of being female.” 

In their responses, Bosch and Omerhodzic—now adults—acknowledged the difficulties of coming to the U.S. and having to assume the responsibilities typically shared by parents. Specifically recounting their transition in the U.S., both women addressed the notion of a lost childhood. 

For much of the discussion, panelists drew comparisons between their lives before and after coming to the U.S. Explaining their cultural connections, each woman described the extent to which she has maintained an identification with her roots. 

“I do not feel like I have lost my culture,” Omerhodzic said. “In fact, I have learned more by working really hard to connect to my roots. I am who I am, but that does not make it so that I cannot belong here because almost everyone in America comes from a different background.”

Upon arriving in the U.S., refugees often seek support through either familial connections or community organizations that create networks of assistance, according to Bosch. Considering the fact that many refugees arrive knowing no one, such organizations often catalyze the assimilation process.  

“The refugee center signed you up for welfare and food stamps and you would receive six months of assistance,” Bosch said. “After that, however, there was an expectation that the adults would find work and children would attend school.”     

As a takeaway, the panelists emphasized getting involved with refugee communities and encouraging education on immigration issues. For students, action demands acknowledging privilege and making use of resources. 

Both globally and in the American political climate, the issue of accepting refugees has distinguished itself as a point of contention. When addressing the politicization of refugees, the speakers—specifically highlighting the Trump administration—expressed ambivalence. 

“As a Muslim, I have never felt more connected to America because this has forced new communication and connections,” Omerhodzic said. “With all the bad, I am also seeing good things, so I feel that the bad does not represent the majority of this country as I see it.”

Kalumbwe expressed similar optimism.

“I think it is a nightmare, but I am not actually afraid,” she said. “I have felt specifically overwhelmed by the support of this community.”