San Diego will mark World Refugee Day in Balboa Park Saturday to spread awareness about our neighbors who fled war and persecution abroad. But one local refugee is taking the message all the way to the nation’s capital to lobby members of Congress.

Speak City Heights

Sedrick Murhula Ntwali, 24, and his family escaped the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where colonial rule left the kindling for volatile fighting and government upheaval that would burn for decades.

Ntwali is in Washington, D.C. this week to ask members of Congress to boost funds for refugees. He’s one of 50 others selected for the trip by the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, a 75-year-old resettlement agency.

This year’s U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement budget included an additional $530 million, increasing its budget to nearly $1.5 billion. But that went to help with a spike in the number of unaccompanied children crossing into the U.S. from Central America. There was little change in resources for the growing number of refugees coming from Burma, or Myanmar, and the recent influx of refugees from Iraq and Iran. Next fiscal year, Congress is again adding funds for child immigrants crossing the border.

Ntwali, who started his own nonprofit at age 17 to ease tensions between refugee groups in his Ugandan refugee camp, said he and other refugees are grateful to be safe in the United States but are still fighting to survive in other ways. He said there aren’t enough affordable housing and employment resources for refugees in San Diego.

Ntwali talked about the challenges – and joys – refugees experience in the U.S. while putting the finishing touches on an art installation honoring refugees earlier this week. It’s on display until 10 p.m. Friday at the Bridge of Hope Community Center in City Heights.

You work with different refugee groups in City Heights. What have you learned from them?

Perseverance, because the life you face is not the life you dreamed of or the life you were born with. You also learn endurance, because you face a lot of struggle. You also learn kindness. You never know where you are. You never where you’re going. You just find yourself there because of war or persecution or anything that made you leave your country. So you need to try to be kind to people so you can live with them in a good relationship, because it’s a new environment that you need to learn from them every single day.

What does San Diego do well to help refugees, and what’s missing?

There’s a lot of agencies here in City Heights that help refugees. But their support is not really enough to give to all refugees that are here. There are three big issues here in San Diego. First of all is housing. They are really having problems finding affordable housing. You’ll see a family of six or seven sleeping in a one- or two-bedroom. Secondly, opportunity; refugees do not have good job opportunities here. And the other issue is integration. Giving somebody food or telling him where to go, what to do is not enough. They also need time to feel integrated in this society; they also need time to be with people in this country. These are people who have been in a lot of trauma, a lot of torture, some have experienced sexual abuse, so they need people close to them in order to have that hope, to have their life back.

The purpose of World Refugee Day is to spread awareness. What are some common misperceptions about refugees?

Of course there are a lot of misperceptions and stereotypes. A lot of people think refugees are useless people, they are totally poor, they are illiterate, they’re good for nothing, but that’s not true. Somebody becomes a refugee by circumstance; it’s not by choice. None of the refugees around the world would want at any time to become a refugee. Some refugees went to school. Some refugees were working. Some had companies. Some were living a good life, sometimes affording three meals a day. It’s just the same as every country whereby there are poor and rich and middle-class.

But a lot of the photos in your exhibition show refugees smiling and speaking highly of their experience in the United States.

It’s pretty sure that they like to be here in this environment. Why? Because some of those kids used to live a war life, moving every day, sometimes not going to school. Being here they are happy because there’s no gun show tonight, there is no gang or rebel group coming, breaking into your house, threatening you.

YouTube video

Video by Megan Burks

Megan Burks

Megan Burks is a reporter for Speak City Heights, a media project of Voice of San Diego, KPBS, Media Arts Center and The AjA Project. You can contact her...

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