Meet some of the women driving refugee resettlement in East Tennessee! (*text changed 20230817)
*Former Executive Director at BRS; honorary delegate from Tennessee and Board Member with the Refugee Congress, the only National nonprofit advocacy organization lead by refugees and asylees promoting the well being, integration and dignity of all refugees, asylum seekers, and other vulnerable migrants in the USA as well as an engaged community member; Board Member with East Tennessee Foundation; active member of Knoxville Association of Women Executives; Fate to Faith speaker
I am an enthusiastic daughter, mother of two, a wife, a sister, a grandmother with a two year old grandson, and an aunt for many.
As a former refugee, I am grateful that America gave me a second chance to live and serve. I am also thankful for the trust the Board of Directors gave me when they hired me as the Executive Director for an amazing and life-saving organization. My integration journey was not easy despite my educational background and my managerial and leadership past experience. It took me 7 years to feel integrated in my new community. Everyday I think about different strategies to find needed resources so refugees I am in charge of can find adequate support for their social adjustment in their new home so they don’t delay where I delayed. Refugees have powerful and healing stories. By sharing our stories, we were able to attract more private donors and partners even during the pandemic, and I am incredibly thankful for all our donors and community partners. Refugees are brave, resilient, risk takers with high levels of adaptation. They are bringing socio, cultural and economic values to our communities. They make me feel happy about making a difference in their lives and they keep me encouraged to dream big and motivated in making a difference in people’s lives.
Even though we accomplished a lot since 1982, refugees still need supportive and committed welcoming communities. We are in need of Community Assistance Teams (one for each family is our goal) and committed volunteers to supplement Case Managers’ work and help refugees integrate in our neighborhoods. Refugees need friends. There are a lot of challenges associated with the traumatic situations refugees went through, and mental health is a major challenge. COVID-19 exacerbated isolation among the refugee population. Housing and transportation challenges keep us awake at night. I am asking faith-based/inspired organizations – traditional partners in refugee resettlement – as well as the private sector to provide extra resources to resolve these challenges and they are capable of doing so.
When refugees thrive, our shared community thrives together. I wish Happy International Women’s day to our refugees, unwavering staff, our volunteers, donors, and community partners.
Associate Director at BRS
I started to assist refugees when I realized that there is a big Ukrainian community in Chattanooga and my language skills can ease their transition into a new city, new country, new everything. I worked as a teacher in an inner-city school at the time and my family consisted of my husband and my 9-year-old daughter. We recently immigrated to the US. And though we left by choice and not by force, I felt a connection with these people. I could never imagine then, how it will change and enrich my life.
In 22 years at Bridge, I worked with thousands of refugees who came from different corners of the world. They came for the chance to rebuild their lives and pursue happiness. Their stories and their strength inspired me as I got to walk alongside with them in their journey. And what a journey it was! Before too long they learned to speak English and how to drive: essential skills in a small Southern town. I proudly watched them working in the factories, construction, health care and running successful businesses. I shared their joy when they became homeowners and their children went to college, for many families as the first generation to do so. Everybody’s story was a little different, but everybody’s achievements were considered a success. And I was always proud that I made a small contribution to this success.
At the same time every refugee I ever worked with contributed to my life and my personal journey. I learned so much, but the biggest lesson of all – the importance of self-determination, resilience, and hard work. The formula of their success that I adopted.
I feel privileged to be a part of refugees journeys and I am grateful that I live in the community that welcomes refugees. Every member of this community can be a part of this important humanitarian mission, and everybody can contribute to refugees’ incredible journey.
Become an advocate, a volunteer, an employer, a landlord, a teacher, a mentor, a donor.
It will enrich your life, and it will make a difference in the life of a refugee who lives in your community.
Rhonda W. Clay
Board Member with BRS; *Mission Funding Director at Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
To me refugees represent a valuable resource to the US. They come to us full of culture and diversity. They are eager and ready to contribute to their new home. I think that if we just pay attention we can learn as much from refugees as we think we have to teach them.
Board Member with BRS; Owner of Mad Priest Coffee
As a native of the unique community enclave of Clarkston, GA, all my friends were refugees. They hailed from Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, all over the world.
The experience led me to travel overseas, settling for a time in India where my husband, Michael, and I worked in the coffee industry before returning to the US.
Through it all, I never lost the desire to help refugees like those I’d grown up with—a passion Michael and I shared. Thus, in 2015, the Mad Priest was born. We wanted to build a social enterprise.
Creating a company where refugees are welcomed and supported in their journey to self-sufficiency is so important, and I hope many other businesses follow suit.
Board Member and Interpreter with BRS; Board Member with Shifa Medical Clinic; Board Member with Annoor Academy
I have a Master’s in Social Work with an emphasis on Medical care, and I am currently raising my two boys.
I have had the pleasure of working as a volunteer with the recent Afghan families that came to the US through translation work, mental health support, and social support.
My personal story is not very different from the refugees. I left Kabul, Afghanistan when I was 8 years old. We transited through Pakistan and lived in India for some time until our final move to the US when I was 10. I experienced firsthand what it feels like to leave everything you know and love behind: family, friends, culture, language, holidays, and the only life one knows.
Growing up in Afghanistan, I had a very “normal” childhood. We knew there was danger due to instability from the cold war between US and USSR, but we went to school, celebrated birthdays, weddings, births, and life just as anyone else here does. As the country became increasingly unstable and eventually plunged into war, my father decided it was time for us to leave.
We landed in the States in the early 90s, and watching my parents’ resilience to thrive in their new country and what they have accomplished in their 30 years in the US is inspiring. We were fortunate to have family in the US that helped our family adjust, understand the new culture, make informed decisions with housing and school, and to be of support. I am beyond grateful to my aunts, uncles, ESL teachers, and schoolteachers who helped me thrive. In the end of it, we are all humans, wanting basic human rights – to be treated kindly, fairly, and with goodness.
Every single refugee that I have spoken to just wants to live their life freely, in peace, and be able to raise their kids and family in a safe environment, and they are grateful for the help they are receiving. My hope is that they settle into their new life in their adopted country without going through too many hurdles. Down the line, I hope they can look back on their journey, their achievement and share their stories with their children and grandchildren.
It is heartbreaking hearing the stories of refugees and leaving their homes often under extenuating circumstances that include war and instability, but at the same time, they represent resilience and courage in the face of hardship and a belief in humanity including the fact that there are people, organizations, and countries who are willing to welcome them and help them rebuild their lives. My hope is to hold light for them as they settle into their new Country.
Owner of Kabob-ster
I have a Master’s in Social Work with an emphasis on Medical care, and I am currently raising my two boys.
As a refugee I learned many things from many countries. Learning culture, learning how to start over my life to be stronger. I learned about many things but at the same time it was not stable. I had the feeling that I will leave, and I cannot build my life here. At the same time, I learned to be strong. I always have hope to have a good life and build a good life for my children. In Iraq, I had the dream to be an engineer or an accountant, like I studied in school. I forgot this dream, but now I own Kabob-ster with my husband and can support my family.
Monica Eshiuan Harris
Program and Human Resource Manager at BRS
I have worked in refugee resettlement programs for 2 years, but first started working with refugees 18 years ago when I got my first job in the non-profit sector. I remember meeting a Somali refugee family – a single mom with multiple kids – who did not speak any English, and just being struck by how she managed to get herself and her family into safe and affordable housing, access public benefits, and keep her family going. She, and the refugees I have worked with in various jobs over the years, have inspired me with their resilience, strength, will to survive, and ability to thrive while dealing with the unspeakable traumatic experiences they have had to endure.
I have also come to see that a central part of my Christian faith is God’s call for his followers to love the stranger, the foreigner, and the vulnerable in our communities. Throughout the Bible, God’s special heart and love for vulnerable people rings so clear; to love and follow God, then, is to love and care for the vulnerable in our communities. I also do not believe that refugees are voiceless – in fact, I’ve found that they have strong voices, stories, and wisdom to share if we only knew how to listen. As a spoken word poet I admire (Micah Bournes) once said, “there are no voiceless people, only a world that must learn to listen.”
Interpreter with BRS
My name is Mona, and I came as a refugee in 2009 from Iraq with three children and my husband. I can relate to new refugees with the struggles they have with starting a new life and in a new place to live. I understand their issues and problems and can provide solutions to them based on my own experiences.
It also helps them to know that I was like them, a refugee, starting a new life here and have gone through the same situation as them. They open up to me, telling me their struggles and they listen when I provide suggestions on how to deal with them.
It’s taken me a long time to get here. The first year when I came, I didn’t speak English at all, but Bridge supported me and helped me learn English. With the community helping me learn English quickly, now I am here interpreting for Bridge.
Interpreter and Community Liaison at BRS
I am originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo. I grew up in Uganda, and I was in a refugee camp for 17 years. I speak 8 languages. My family and I came to the US in 2016, and settled in Tallahassee, FL. Tallassee is such a beautiful city and I still love it, but due to some challenges that we faced in Tallahassee (e.g. lack of job opportunities) we had to move to Knoxville, TN. We moved to Knoxville in 2018, and in a period of one month, I started working with Bridge Refugee Services. I’ve been in Knoxville since then and I love it too.
I enjoy helping my fellow refugees to navigate the new chapter of life when they arrive to the US. Since I speak multiple languages, it helps me to help as many clients as I can. As a Community Liaison, I have talked to most of the clients in the community, and one of the common challenges they all go through is transportation and not being able to take driving tests in their language. We encourage them to use the bus, but it’s still not easy with the mothers that have little kids especially when the weather is really not good. It’s a big challenge to stand for an hour in the snow or rain waiting for the bus to go grocery shopping. I personally think that creating multicultural driving schools and providing interpreters at the DMV can be put under consideration. It would be one of the ways to solve the transportation problem, and our community will benefit more from the refugee workforce if the problems were resolved. Also I do want to say a big thanks to all donors out there who give donations of all kinds to our clients. We really do appreciate it so much. Please keep the spirit of helping our clients because they really still need your support. So please don’t stop bringing in the support.
Working with refugees has taught me to be patient with people. Knowing that I’m working with people who have gone through a lot in life just like me helps me to be so patient with them in so many occasions.
Working with them also puts a smile on my face. Each time I see a client start from nothing to being self-sufficient, that makes me work even more and it motivates me so much.
Senior Program Manager at Episcopal Migration Ministries
Working in the refugee resettlement field gives me a great opportunity to be a part of tremendous efforts taken by committed individuals throughout the country, to support newcomers, and yes, refugees themselves take a great part in those efforts. That inspires me and keeps me going.
While living and trying to survive in a war-torn Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, I was not in control of the situation. My survival was about focusing on what I could control, what still made me happy, how I could still express my emotions and hopes with my parents, brother, cousins, and friends.
Escaping war horrors, and as a former refugee, I have carried my look on the brighter side attitude to take me through my life. My family, my friends, my very existence – I am really grateful for that. I lost a home country, but I did not lose my hope for new beginnings and opportunities to rebuild and grow. And with hope, came perseverance. Sure, hard times and challenges were around me, I was in a new country after all, the country I had never been before. With determination to see those challenges not as obstacles, but openings to learn from others, offer to others, give to and accept from others, I continue to support my family and friends, and make every effort to be a productive member of my community.
State Refugee Health Coordinator at Tennessee Office for Refugees; Chair Elect with Association for Refugee Health Coordinators; Co-Chair with ARHC New Sites and Health Committee
Refugees bring meaning, richness, sorrow, and love to my life.
People should feel safe, purposeful, free, and happy in their new communities.
Tragedy has brought them here, but it is not perpetual. I strive to create a nation of refuge for everyone, and to help others to do the same.
State Refugee Coordinator at Tennessee Office for Refugees
Working with refugees – welcoming them in our local communities, connecting them with services, education, and opportunities, and supporting their integration – is a practical and tangible opportunity for us to live our shared values in action.
Erin Williamson Wimmer (left) and Allison Molloy (right) are responsible for the origins of the iconic artwork which has become such a big part of Bridge’s graphic presence.
I was asked to design this shirt to raise awareness for refugees from around the world and I saw it as a wonderful opportunity to contribute, take action, and show my support. The world needs more empathy, kindness and and selflessness. The people that are willing to wear these welcoming and encouraging words across their chests are golden in my book.
Erin Williamson Wimmer
PhD Candidate in Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge
I was nineteen years old and sitting in a garden in New Delhi, India the first time I met someone who had fled war and violence seeking refuge. A young girl told me how her family had fled conflict in Kabul the year before, in the early 2000s. She gave me one of her precious plastic bangles she wore on her wrist and then skipped off to play with her sisters. This brief encounter sparked a lifelong interest in the lives of those who are forcibly displaced and the systems of asylum and emplacement they encounter along the way. I’ve been fortunate enough to travel quite broadly in my life and seemingly found myself drawn to places with histories of hosting refugees, in very different contexts. Shortly after completing my master’s degree in London in 2012, I found myself sitting in a park in Cairo listening to Adele play on an iPhone speaker and talking to young men from Syria who pleaded for the world to pay attention to what was happening in their country. I returned to my hometown of Knoxville and began volunteering with Bridge, teaching English to newly resettled families from Ethiopia.
For the next few years, I continued to be involved in refugee resettlement projects in Tennessee. I worked for NICE in Nashville as the middle school program coordinator, leading an afterschool program for children of immigrants. Alongside the anthropology department of Lee University, I hosted a five-week lecture series in 2017 introducing a public audience to the process of resettlement in the US through guest speakers, covering topics ranging from immigration law and refugee experiences of adjusting to Tennessee to Islamophobia. As part of the lecture series, I created the Refugee Welcome t-shirts that have come to proudly represent Bridge. I designed the shirts with the help of Allison Molloy, printed and distributed them as a hobby during the lecture series with the intention of raising a couple hundred dollars for Bridge along the way. I never expected the response and support from communities across Nashville, Knoxville, and Chattanooga. Restaurants asked to sell the shirts to raise funds for Bridge; friends and strangers were emailing me asking how they could get more. I kept the project alive for a year before handing off the design to Bridge and could not be happier to see my familiar design on strangers’ shirts across Tennessee.
In 2018, I began my PhD in Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge in the UK. My research focuses on stories of hope among asylum seekers on the small Greek island of Samos, where I lived for 15 months conducting ethnographic research. All of these experiences have only reinforced my belief that understanding human differences and similarities can break down the barriers of fear and prejudice which create imaginary ‘others.’ People who wear the label of ‘refugee’ need not be framed as political nor as suffering strangers; they are simply people who are trying to live in ways they understand as good. All these years later, I still have that plastic blue bangle that started my own journey towards understanding experiences of forced displacement, and I hope to continue to learn about and engage global systems of asylum for many years to come.