'I didn’t know our voice as immigrants could make a change, but it did.'
Student refugees recall testifying against bill limiting refugee resettlement.
On a cold day in February, Ashti and Aline left their homes at 4 a.m. to travel to the capital of North Dakota. The House Government was considering a bill limiting refugee resettlement in their state — and they were determined to stop it.
“I was so nervous because it was so fancy,” Ashti remembers with a laugh. “The people were wearing suits, oh my God!” Aline was anxious as well, but she knew she had to share her story. “They were only talking about the negative side of being immigrants,” she explains.
Ashti and Aline are refugees. Ashti left Iraq after her family received death threats because her father worked as an interpreter for the U.S. Army. The conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo forced Aline’s family to flee to Burundi. In Burundi they faced more violence and escaped to Kenya before resettling in the U.S.
Refugees and immigrants from around the state joined Ashti and Aline in testifying in Bismarck against the bill. Ashti didn’t prepare her remarks in advance — she spoke from her heart: “I told them that we’re not here just for fun… we had to leave our homes.” For Ashti, this meant saying goodbye to friends and family members, learning a new language and starting high school over again as a freshman, even though she was a senior back in Iraq.
“I remember I didn’t even talk in class, because people would know I have an accent and that I’m an immigrant,” she recalls. Ashti started a part-time job at the department store JCPenny, which helped her learn English. However, she regularly faced rude customers. “I just had to deal with it,” she says with a sigh. At 21 years old, Ashti graduated high school last year and is now enrolled in online university. She hopes to become a physical therapist.
During Aline’s testimony, she shared with the committee that she is a published author. In her English class, every student wrote piece about their journey to North Dakota, which were published in a book. In her essay titled “Finally Over,” Aline wrote about how her family was forced out of Congo and into Burundi. As refugees in Burundi, they were targeted by rebels. Aline watched as her father was burned alive.
Her family moved to Kenya, where they remained for six years before resettling in North Dakota. The process of writing her story proved cathartic for Aline and inspired her to continue sharing her story: “I came to realize when you hold something in you for too long, you don’t get healed.”
Aline spends her free time with her family — her younger brother loves it when she takes him to Skyzone, an indoor trampoline park. She reads a lot of self-help books, particularly books by Ben Carson. Aline enjoys learning “what steps I need to take to be a better me.” She experiences racism at her current part-time job in a fast food restaurant and hopes to change jobs soon. But she’s determined to make the most of her new life in North Dakota: “As long as I have this opportunity, I have to use it wisely. I’m working hard.”
Thanks to the testimonies of Ashti, Aline and others, the bill did not pass. “We made a change,” Ashti says proudly. She hopes that more refugees will be inspired to share their stories like she did: “If they don’t hear from you, how do you expect them to know your struggles?”
For Aline, the process helped her realise her own power and potential: “I didn’t know our voice as immigrants could make a change, but it did.”
Thank you to our friends at Green Card Voices for facilitating our conversation with Ashti and Aline. Ashti is one of the youth authors featured in the book, "Green Card Youth Voices: Immigration stories from a Fargo High School." Aline is one of the youth authors featured in the book “Journey to America: Narrative Short Stories.”
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tess Thomas is editor of Assembly, a digital publication and newsletter from Malala Fund. She loves books, cats and french fries.