Kassim Rajab arrived in Madison as a refugee in 2018 without any family, and he didn’t know anyone in the city.
“I’m coming from a crowded world where everyone seemed to know each other, even if you have never met. So (in) Africa, everyone is a relative to everyone,” Rajab said. “I came here and spent two, three days in the house, no one is coming to say hello to me.”
When Pierre Ramazani, a fellow refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo, came to Madison, his “only help” was his resettling agency, Jewish Social Services.
“Anything I want to do, I have to call them. I have an appointment, I want to go to the hospital, so they have to send for me a car to help me,” he said, but sometimes, he just wanted someone to talk to.
Then Ramazani and Rajab met.
“When I saw Pierre, I told him, it was like I’ve seen the savior. Like wow, you are also here?” Rajab said. “That’s when I started living in America. Because I got his number, we started speaking and laughing.”
Ramazani, Rajab and other refugees have formed the Madison Refugee Union to help welcome the next refugees and prevent feelings of isolation. The group also wants to lift up refugee voices, educate and advocate for refugee issues.
“In my experience I know that when refugees come together by themselves, they will do something great,” Rajab said.
The newly formed and growing group is made up of about seven members so far, from countries including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. Madison Refugee Union is co-hosting several events next week with Jewish Social Services for World Refugee Day, June 20.
June 20 was declared World Refugee Day by the United Nations to bring attention to refugee communities, said Becca Schwartz, resettlement director for JSS.
Through a film screening, panel discussions and a town hall, Madison Refugee Union will raise awareness and answer questions about the refugee experience.
“One of the objectives (is) to let them know that we are here, that we are not different from them, that we go through a lot, and it has been a very, very long journey and struggle,” Rajab said. “All the journeys and the procedures, interviews and waiting period is traumatizing sometimes.”
Ramazani left the Democratic Republic of Congo at the age of 7 because of war, then spent 17 years in a refugee camp in neighboring Burundi. Rajab said he only survived because when rebels tried to recruit him as a child, he was too small to fight.
“All my generation, my friends, the people I grew up with, when you join the army at that age — 10, 11, 12 — at the war they put you in the front,” he said.
When Rajab came to the U.S., Madison residents were generally eager to help, especially when it came to outfitting him for the cold winter months.
“So they will look at your shoes like, ‘Is that the only one you have? That one will not manage, okay let me bring you a couple,’” Rajab said.
But others may not know who to help or how, and Madison Refugee Union hopes to introduce more Madison residents to the refugees around them.
“We are right on their doors. We are their neighbors. We work with them,” Rajab said.
And the union members themselves will pitch in to help; they believe it’s important to pay it forward. Union members are willing to step in to help with transportation, interpretation or simply explaining food stamps or the green card process, Rajab said. JSS provides helpful services, but the more help, the better, he said.
JSS provides case management for initial arrival, employment and for those experiencing barriers to self-sufficiency, Schwartz said, but there are many small, daily tasks refugees might need help with that don’t fall within its purview.
One example: learning to ride the bus can be a tricky undertaking, especially if someone is coming from a country where public transportation doesn’t run on a schedule, Schwartz said.
“No one knows better how a Congolese refugee is going to react to being planted in Madison, Wisconsin, than another Congolese refugee,” she said.
Madison Refugee Union is also ready to advocate. On a national level, it’s important to bring more refugees to the country, Rajab said, especially as over the 2018 fiscal year, only 22,491 of an allowed 45,000 refugees were settled in the U.S.
“They see the reduced numbers. They see that many of them still have relatives who are living as refugees,” Schwartz said. “They want to do what they can to tell the story.”
On a local advocacy level, the group is eager and willing to partner with local organizations and speak at events, Rajab and Ramazani said, and welcomes everyone to join their union, refugee or not.
Schwartz invited all to next week’s events, which were supported with funding from the state Department of Children and Families.
“This topic has somehow become a partisan, political topic in the last few years,” Schwartz said, but hopes the events reach those who may be “unsure if we should be resettling refugees but who are willing to learn.”
World Refugee Day activities:
On Monday, June 17, watch a film, then take in a panel discussion with refugees and resettlement staff in the Central Library community room, 201 W. Mifflin St. The film “This is Home,” tracks the resettlement of four Sysrian refugee families. The free event hosted by JSS and Madison Refugee Union runs from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., and attendees can register online.
On Thursday, June 20, JSS and Madison Refugee Union will host a “Refugee Town Hall” and panel discussion and Q&A on the experience of settling in Madison as a refugee. The free event runs from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. in the UW-Madison Hillel building, 611 Langdon St., with registration online.
On Sunday, June 23, stop by for Open Doors For Refugees’ fourth annual community picnic from 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the Olin Park Shelter, 1156 Olin-Turville Ct. The potluck event provides an opportunity for refugees and native Madisonians to have fun eating, playing and talking together.