University of Iowa hosts Refugees in the Heartland conference

BY BRIANNA JETT | APRIL 05, 2013 5:00 AM

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Genocide doesn’t leave many survivors, but in 1998, Hadidja Nyiransekuye fled her home in Rwanda with her youngest daughter, leaving behind three other children and her husband.

A few years later, her other children followed. Her husband, though, was killed.

“I was lucky to have survived the war and genocide,” she said. “Not many people did. I’ve picked up little kids, 6-month-old babies, which were lost with no parents. I’ve walked with women who have lost everybody in their family, and they were the only one remaining.”

This weekend, Nyiransekuye will speak at the University of Iowa for the Refugees in the Heartland conference. The conference runs from Thursday to April 7 and features international and Midwest refugee leaders, service providers, policy makers, educators, and famed writers.

“As time has gone by, and as I get to know more about the politics of the war, I am still very disappointed in the response at the time and what is happening now,” Nyiransekuye said. “I can’t make it any one person’s fault. That’s why I get involved in refugee issues, because hopefully, with my voice and other people’s voices, we can make sure that the world really drops its lethargy, that people think about situations like what is happening in Syria in terms of the human lives and the human loss.”

According to the U.S. Department of State’s count, 58,238 refugees came to the United States in fiscal 2012.

The conference is designed to both educate the local public about the stories of these refugees, as well as give leaders a chance to discuss current problems and push for change.

“This is also an opportunity for those more directly engaged in the work of welcoming refugees and assisting them to talk about their challenges and concerns and to actually have a voice in some policy making through the U.N. High Commission for Refugees,” said Amy Weismann, the associate director of the UI Center for Human Rights.

UI student Louis Swaka fled South Sudan and ended up in Des Moines. Although he felt welcome and found a new home, he said there are definitely challenges that come with being a refugee.

“It’s just part of trying to get into a new community,” he said. “It’s not a very easy transition.”

Zeljka Krvavica is a refugee who fled Bosnia 20 years ago with her two sons and husband. She now works as a Promise Jobs case manager for the Bureau of Refugee Services and hopes to advocate for some change.

“I would like to see change in better understanding of mental health in refugee populations and accordingly, better funding,” she said.

Another emphasis of the conference is a focus on telling the stories of refugees.

“A theme of this conference is storytelling — that there is a profound need and value in having people give voice to their experiences,” Weismann said. “I am very happy that we have an opportunity in this conference to feature the stories of people that have been resettled. I think the most important component about any discussion of immigration is to understand the human impact and real people involved.”

The UI is perfectly placed to host a refugee conference. Many refugees from around the world settle in the Midwest — Iowa especially.

“Iowa has an interesting history in the U.S. with regards to refugee settlement,” Weismann said. “We were one of the first states to have our own state-run refugee resettlement agency.”

Weismann said Iowa’s quiet atmosphere and promise of a good education for children is very attractive.

“I think refugees find it comfortable living in the Midwest,” Krvavica said. “Most of us find the Midwest very welcoming.”

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