5 Stories of Refugee and Immigrant Generosity

Profiles that highlight the generosity of refugees and immigrants here and around the world

June 24, 2021

The migrant narrative often focuses on the beginning and end of someone’s journey, consisting of stories of escaping danger, facing trials, and overcoming obstacles. But when refugees and immigrants resettle in new places, it’s very rarely the end of a story; rather, it marks the start of a new adventure filled with opportunities to begin something new.

As part of World Refugee and Immigrant Heritage Month, we’re sharing stories of refugees, immigrants, and advocates who are leaders, trailblazers, and game changers. These local, national, and global neighbors have demonstrated inspiring levels of generosity by giving back to their communities and making a notable difference in the space around them. By sharing their stories, we hope to inspire others to follow their lead and give back to their own communities.

Photo by Nicolo Filippo Rosso via UNHCR

1. Mayerlín Vergara Pérez

A 45-year-old woman from Colombia, Mayerlín Vergara Pérez has dedicated her life to helping youths who are survivors of sexual violence and exploitation. She operates a home on the Colombian-Venezuelan border that houses minors who cross the border and become victims of sexual exploitation, sometimes being rescued from brothels or picked up from the streets.

The home, along with others placed throughout Colombia, offers therapy sessions, educational activities, and housing to children and teen survivors of sexual violence, helping them rebuild their lives. Since her 20s, Mayerlín has been answering phone calls in the middle of the night, listening to youth as they share stories of their trauma, and going on reconnaissance missions to high-risk hotspots of sexual exploitation.

“I remember my boss saying that opening a home required ‘a 200% effort. It’s draining in every sense — physically, emotionally and economically,’” Mayerlín tells the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). “Then she asked, ‘who wants to lead the project?’ and I raised my hand.”

With Fundación Renacer, the organization she works for, Mayerlín has helped rescue hundreds of children and teenage migrants over her more than 20 years of work. Last year, she was awarded the 2020 Nansen Refugee Award, a prize awarded by the UNHCR that honors an individual that has gone above and beyond to support forcibly displaced and stateless people.

Photo courtesy of Lila

2. Lila (Hello Neighbor Mentee & Interpreter)

One of our very own mentees who now serves as an interpreter for Hello Neighbor, Lila, brought 40 years of teaching experience with her to the U.S. when she left Bhutan. Now, she’s using this experience to help prepare children for preschool in the South Hills community of Pittsburgh.

Originally from Bhutan, Lila and her family spent years living in Nepal before she came to the U.S. in 2009. Before arriving, she spent 18 years at a refugee camp, where she learned English at the camp school. Now, working at South Hills Interfaith Movement (SHIM), Lila is able to teach English to children and families herself.

For Lila, her work is about so much more than just teaching people — it’s about building a safe and encouraging space for those in her community.

“My generosity is to encourage them, give them a safe place to play and not feel like formal school. A friendly place to learn something in a positive way and a friendly matter,” Lila says.

She knows from personal experience how difficult it can be to come to a new place and not be confident with the language, geography, and culture, and she wants to be a source of help for the children and families she meets.

“Generosity is being willing to help, willing to participate in all of the programs being offered, and willing to provide help to your community,” Lila says. “Make them confident, and watch them build confidence.”

Photo by Nakin x Korakrit via UNHCR

3. Yutthachai Jaju

Although Yutthachai Jaju was born in Thailand, he didn’t have Thai nationality and was stateless until his teenage years. Now that he has his citizenship, he’s dedicated to helping other stateless individuals in his country.

Yutthachai works as a community mobilizer at the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA), a global humanitarian organization through which he’s able to provide resources and support to stateless people around his area of Thailand. Because many stateless individuals may not have access to information on how to obtain nationality, Yutthachai and his team help them to prepare documents, walk them through the application process, and accompany them to meetings as translators and moral support.

“When I became a Thai national, I felt like I was being reborn, like I was receiving a new life,” Yutthachai tells the UNHCR. “As a stateless person, it was like being in a state of darkness, of blurriness. After I received Thai nationality, it felt like there was light.”

Because he also grew up stateless, Yutthachai is committed to informing stateless people about their rights and helping them escape the vulnerability that often accompanies individuals without Thai citizenship. Through his work, Yutthachai is actively helping people become more comfortable in their own country and confident in their personal success.

Photo courtesy of J.L. Martello via Pittsburgh Couriere

4. Siraji Hassan

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck the U.S. last year, Siraji Hassan could have stayed home for months and protected himself. Instead, he got right to work — by providing for the members of his Somali Bantu community in Pittsburgh.

As the executive director of United Somali Bantu of Greater Pittsburgh, Siraji remains connected to his fellow Somali Bantus, and recognized last year that his community would face unique challenges brought on by the pandemic. Siraji would always carry hand sanitizer and masks with him for when he would encounter a family in need from his community.

“It’s my obligation, despite the pandemic, to step up and help my fellow Americans and my fellow refugee and immigrant families … there is still light at the end of the tunnel, and we will get through this together,” Siraji told PublicSource in an April 2020 interview.

Language barriers and lack of access to social services have made it difficult for refugee and immigrant communities to receive resources and supplies to fight the pandemic — so Siraji stepped up to be that access point for Pittsburgh’s Somali Bantu community. He partnered with Pittsburgh nonprofits to organize food distributions and met with families in-person to help them file unemployment claims and make financial assistance requests, and his dedication helped protect Somali Bantu families — and the greater Pittsburgh community.

Photo courtesy of Exodus Refugee

5. Heba

Before leaving her home country of Kuwait, Heba had studied to become a nurse. Now, just a few years after arriving in the U.S., she’s able to use her skills to help treat COVID-19 patients through her job as a respiratory therapist.

Heba’s family fled Somalia before she was born, but after spending most of her life stateless in Kuwait, Heba and her family were afraid they’d be sent back to Somalia — so they applied to the UNHCR to gain refugee status. They moved to Indiana, where Heba enrolled in a community college to continue her studies and started her current job.

Heba sees her work during the pandemic as critical, and tends to work seven days a week.

“It is really scary because you have to protect yourself all the time, but I want to help even though it is optional,” Heba tells Exodus Refugee.

Because of her exposure to COVID-19 patients, Heba had to sacrifice attending an in-person ceremony to take her oath of citizenship. Instead, she took her oath outdoors, separated from the rest of her fellow new Americans. However, she remains dedicated to her work, and hopes to one day become a pulmonologist to continue supporting her family and helping her patients.

We are so proud to share these stories of refugee and immigrant generosity with our Hello Neighbor community, and hope to encourage you to follow their lead and give back to the communities around you!

One way to help spread generosity to local refugees and immigrants and celebrate their contributions is by donating to our mission to help support our newest neighbors on their journey from surviging to thriving.


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