As part of the Jesuit Refugee Service 2020 Speakers Tour, journalist Danielle Vella shared individual refugee narratives from her new book and encouraged students to listen to the stories of refugees and share them with others on Tuesday in the Harper Center Ballroom.
Vella is the author of “Dying to Live: Stories from Refugees on the Road to Freedom.”
Representatives from Lutheran Family Services and James Bol Chuol, a local community leader and refugee from South Sudan, also shared their work and experiences at the event.
A beginning reflection was provided by Eileen Burke-Sullivan, vice provost for mission and ministry, and the Rev. Daniel S. Hendrickson, S.J., followed with opening remarks.
JRS, founded in 1980 by the Rev. Pedro Arrupe, S.J., has been accompanying, serving and advocating for refugees and forcibly displaced persons across the globe.
“Throughout 40 years of great sorrow and great pain, the road JRS has walked with refugees has also been filled with moments of reconciliation and of great joy,” Hendrickson said.
Vella is the director of reconciliation and social cohesion for JRS, and she has provided more than 20 years of service to the organization. As a journalist, Vella has contributed to several publications, striving to share people’s stories.
Vella’s new book is one of her latest projects, and it was the main focus of her lecture.
The book tells the personal stories of refugees from Morocco, Syria, Iraq, Palestine,
Afghanistan, Pakistan, Eritrea, South Sudan, France, Serbia, Spain, Ethiopia, Uganda, Lebanon and the U.S.
Vella shared parts of her book with the audience and discussed the common themes she saw emerge among the many stories that she has heard and shared over the years. She emphasized that, although all the stories in her book are about refugees, each of the stories was their own.
“There is no ‘typical’ refugee,” Vella said. “Every story is unique and is different.”
The latest statistics from the United Nations state that there are about 70 million refugees and displaced people in the world today.
“This is one reason why I wrote this book: to show that behind this anonymous and overwhelming statistic — 70 million — are 70 mil- lion individual lives,” Vella said.
Vella noted that despite the diversity of countries she has worked in and the fact that every refugee’s story is unique in its own right, the same echoes of experience continue to appear.
“One thing that really strikes me is this theme of threatened, shaken identity,” Vella said. “When you are uprooted, when you have to leave everything, you really lose a sense, in a way, of who you are and your place in the world.”
Vella said that refugees want to tell their stories for many reasons, and one of these reasons is so they have the opportunity to dispel the stereotypes about who refugees are, explain why they leave their countries and can address the risks some think they pose to the countries they seek refuge and welcome from.
“Whenever I ask refugees if they want to share their story, most of them jump at the chance,” Vella said. “[They] welcome the chance to set the record straight.”
Refugees leave their home countries, Vella said, because they have no choice.
She shared that one young man that she interviewed told her that dying and staying in his country are the same thing. He said that he was not looking for a better life, just life, as well as freedom. Another man told her, “freedom is so expensive.”
“They know because they risk their lives to find [freedom],” Vella said. “Many die when they attempt to find life, and that’s the tragedy.”
Vella closed her speech with the words of a refugee from Pakistan who has resettled in the United States after a painful journey that took the lives of his mother and sister. Vella said that he became a refugee because he wants to be fully alive, and he has a clear understanding of what this means.
“‘Truly living means living in the hearts of people — not just doing your thing, because everyone does that. When someone is glad that you were born because you helped them, that’s when you are truly alive,’” Vella quoted.
College of Arts and Sciences senior and student leader in the Schlegel Center for Service and Justice Jordan Malcom said she came to this event to hear Vella’s story and the stories of the refugees she has written about.
“I want to honor and bring light to these stories,” Malcom said. “My biggest takeaway [from hearing Vella speak] was the need to continue to have conversations about raising refugee resettlement numbers.”
Following Vella’s address, Lutheran Family Services and Bol Chuol spoke about the positive actions the Omaha community has taken in response to the refugee crisis.
The event closed with a Q&A, where Vella emphasized that an effective way for young people to get involved in the refugee movement is to hear people’s stories and share them.
“We need to encourage a lot of critical thinking,” Vella said. “[Asking,] ‘What does justice look like, and what do human rights look like?’ [We are] working with young people to grow up to be agents of change.”