CTAUN Conference Morning Session – 3 Refugees in Texas and Awards

Refugees in Texas

The final panelist of the morning was Isabella Saavedra, an immigration lawyer working with Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, where she defends refugees’ rights. Herself a refugee, she came to the United States without documents from Colombia as a ten year old. She is currently working at the U.S. detention centers in Dilley, Texas, which she describes as “like internment camps.”

In 2014, there was no legal representation for refugees at the border, and many refugees were forced into mandatory detention and given “expedited removal,” which means they were deported with no legal processing. This led four Catholic refugee organizations to form CARA Pro Bono. They are all volunteers, many are attorneys and social workers who prepare the refugees for meeting with asylum officers.

Ms.Saavedra described the conditions at Dilley as inhumane: people are held in “ice boxes,” with no protection from Texas heat which often soars to 107 degrees. There is no medicine for sick children and high arsenic levels in the water. She spoke of losing hope in humanity, seeing the way the United States is treating these women and children. Ms. Saavedra urged us to call on Congress to eliminate family detention.

The Question and Answer period raised questions about the detention centers: They are run by for-profit corporations, which make huge profits and lobby Congress for more detainees. The detention centers under Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s jurisdiction. Mr. Trump’s Executive Orders would greatly increase expedited removals and remove judges from the asylum process.


The morning session ended with Awards for Excellence in Education and for Posters displaying students’ research on refugees.

The Awards for Excellence in Education [scroll down for details about the awards and winners] went to two programs for immigrants in Georgia, which has large immigrant community, and a school in Pennsylvania for funding wells in South Sudan:

  • Dr. James Badger, Beth White and Hattie Burchardt, of the International Community School, Atlanta, GA
  • Haime Haile – Georgia State University with the Clarkston Community Project
  • Sarah Beltz and Heather Elvidge and 7th Grade Educators at Keith Valley Middle School, Horsham, Pennsylvania

The Poster Awards were given to 20 college students from around the world, including a group from India who all attended the session and displayed their work. Others were from Africa and the Middle East, and the United States. Some of the posters were very informative. Others appealed directly to the heart, depicting refugee situations.

CTAUN Conference Afternoon Session – 1 Young Refugee Voices

The afternoon began with Young Refugee Voices, a series of heart-rending stories from young refugees.

The first, a young Palestinian woman, became a U.S. citizen yesterday; she received a huge round of applause. She told us that she did not know she was a refugee growing up until her family faced great danger when they moved to Iraq. She has come to see that her experiences can be valuable to others, to help them see themselves, as she came to, as persons with many opportunities, not victims. She ended by saying, “I didn’t have a home; now I do” and “Nobody is different; only labels make us different.”

A second university student, a young man, listed some of the difficulties he had faced: lack of water, food, sanitation, health care, education. Food and water had to be brought to them, as there was no supply at the camp. Because he  had moved from place to place, sometimes in a desert, sometimes in a tropical climate, the challenges varied.

Often he had to make the choice of going to school or getting food and/or water for his family. Another obstacle was lack of light, except for daylight; he could not study in the evening. Also the classes were filled with students from all levels, so there was no consistent learning.

As there were no toys or sports equipment, he told us he and his friends would beg plastic gloves from medical volunteers to blow up into soccer balls.

Another major challenge is lack of documents, making it difficult to travel outside the camp. He suggested that the UN issue some sort of documents for refugees.  He also stated that the world needs to invest in refugees, especially young people, so that they can become a resource for the world.

One Iraqi refugee said that he almost died in Iraq when an American sniper fired while he was playing in the street. The soldiers warned him away, washed his face and gave him water and a camera (illegal in Iraq; police later broke it). At 18, he joined the U.S. military and learned English through Google!

Soon after, his mother called to say his father had been shot for helping Americans, so he left Iraq. Through the UN, he signed up to take photographs in Jordan, and eventually he came to live with an uncle in the U.S. Now he is at a university studying, taking as many classes as he can to make up for lost opportunities.

One young woman, a Syrian refugee, told us that her father had been detained by President Assad while she was attending a six-week program in the United States. Her mother and two sisters fled to Iraq and then Turkey, and she applied for asylum in the U.S. They still have no news of her father’s condition or whereabouts.  She worries also about her sisters: the younger one has had no education and her  other sister has been applying to come to the United States for two and a half years.

Being resettled is not the end of the struggle, she told us; refugees are given a plane ticket but are expected to repay it in six months.  She is also concerned about whether the United States will be safe now. She also emphasized that refugees need support for their minds, as well; she saw no attention being given to their mental health.

Another young woman, originally from the Congo, and a refugee in Burundi, also did not know she was a refugee as a child. She told us that being a refugee is a “deprivation” — in the camps, they have no rights, no freedoms, they are subjected to disease, and even taunting by other refugees. She said that her mother had refused to move until all her children could go with her, so she would not lose them.

Now that she is in the United States at college, she says she came here to work for what was taken away, and to make America better. She reminded us that refugees do not want to migrate; to save their lives, they could do nothing but run with nothing.

Members of the audience expressed their admiration for these young people who have been through such horrors and are so committed to getting an education (all are in college or universities here), and they received a number of invitations to speak at high schools.