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Florida Refugee Advocacy Week Teaches Others To 'Be A Good Neighbor'

Florida Immigrant Coalition

Until she came to the United States in 2010, all Basma Alawee had known was her life in Iraq. She had her family, her friends and her career in engineering. Once her husband started working with American troops, they became a target. They were granted a special immigration visa and started a new life in Jacksonville, Florida. 

“Most of the time refugees leave home taking nothing with them, they cannot even take their documents, and sometimes in many cases, like me, couldn’t even have time to say goodbye to loved ones,” she said. 

Integrating into a new life in a new country is not easy. There are resettlement agencies that provide support, but only for a short period of time. Through volunteering and supporting other incoming refugees, Alawee found a new calling that has changed not just her career, but her life. 

“In our situation, I was privileged that I spoke English and I read English, imagine people who don’t even have the language, and how much they need to learn in the three to six months from the refugee resettlement agency,” she said.  

Since 2013, Alawee has been a Florida delegate for the Refugee Congress. She’s also worked for the Florida Immigration Coalition for the past three years. And in 2019, she co-founded WeaveTales, that shares the stories of refugees to help break the stigma and existing narratives around the refugee process. 

Next week, Alawee will be part of the 3rd Annual Refugee Advocacy Week at the Florida State Capitol from March 22 through March 26. This year’s event will be online with training sessions and panel discussions educating legislators and the public about refugee resettlement. 

“We know and understand there’s a lot of things people really don’t know, legislators don’t know, and that’s what we are trying to do — educate, educate, educate — to build the bridges and make sure the state of Florida continues to be welcoming to the refugees and also treat the refugees who are already living here equally.”

One of the constant struggles facing refugees is the xenophobia, says Alawee. And in recent years the issue increased after an executive order from former President Trump, known as the Muslim Ban.

“Xenophobia exists all the time, but it could be increased when leaders (are) speaking about it, when leaders (are) making it look normal,” she said. “During the Trump administration, we heard that specific refugees are not welcome. There were specific countries banned from the United States and it wasn’t right.”

Alawee, an American citizen who wears a hijab, said she’s faced discrimination from strangers on the street. 

“Within the first couple of years in the past administration I was discriminated in the public in Jacksonville in an area where it’s really diverse and I was told by someone from far away ‘you need to be deported, you need to go back to your home country,” Alawee recalled 

The State of Florida’s refugee program is one of the largest in the country with more than 27,000 entrants each year, according to the Florida Department of Children and Families. Those individuals make an economic impact on the state, says Alawee. 

“Just in 2019, refugees in the state of Florida contributed around $748.8 million to state taxes,” she added. “And also, the spending power of refugee communities in the state of Florida is over $2.4 billion here.”

Alawee says she shares her story, and the story of other refugees to put a human face to the issue. And to show gratitude for a new life. 

“When I was sharing the stories of my childhood, of war and dictatorship, I share it with my family and my community because I want us to remember that we are safe here, we have shelter, we have a home, we can go to school,” she said. “Of course, with the pandemic, a lot of things have changed, but still, we want to always be grateful to the safe home we are living in now.”

An opening and welcoming community can make all the difference for a refugee in a new place. It made a difference for Alawee. She wants to see that continue. 

“I think to understand we always need to know who is our neighbor, and to be a good neighbor. It’s something that exists all the time and that’s what we want to be every single day.” 

You can register for online events with Refugee Advocacy Week online on the Florida Immigrant Coalition Facebook page. Alawee will also be a speaker next month with the Florida Talks online series hosted by WUWF and Florida Humanities Council. For more information on Florida Talks visit wuwf.org.