IRC Charlottesville celebrates "15 Years Leading Refugees from Harm to Home"

June 23, 2013

This week, the International Rescue Committee celebrated its 15th year of refugee resettlement in Charlottesville, VA. At the anniversary celebration, our CEO Crystal Mario spoke about the profound impact IRC clients have had on the Charlottesville community. Read her remarks below, and learn more about IRC Charlottesville.

When I was in college, I played squash.  By squash, I am referring to the sport, not the vegetable.  For those of you unfamiliar with squash, it is played with a small ball and a long racquet, on an indoor court that is essentially a rectangular room.  One of my regular squash partners, Raul, was a refugee, one of the 7,000 Chileans resettled in Canada after the violent overthrow of the Allende government.  I didn’t know much about Raul.  I only knew that, before he and his family were forced to flee Chile, he had been an attorney.  One day, while he and I were doing squash drills, my racquet accidentally slipped out of my hand and flew across the court, almost hitting him and truly scaring me.  I was young, genuinely shaken, near tears, and I said, “Raul, I am so sorry. I almost killed you!”

Raul, a quiet man about twice my age, started to laugh.  He pulled up the sleeve on his t-shirt and pointed to a large scar near his heart. “You see, here?  This almost killed me.”  Then he pulled up his shirt a little and showed me another scar, “And you see, here?  This almost killed me.” “You must understand,” he said kindly, “I have been shot. I have been tortured.  You did not almost kill me.  I have never been better.”  He handed my squash racquet back to me and said, “Now, let’s keep going.”

“Let’s keep going.”  In all the years since then, and in my many years of involvement with IRC Charlottesville, when I think of refugees, this phrase, “let’s keep going” often comes to mind.  And while I hesitate to generalize about any group in our community, I think it is safe to say that the refugees who have resettled here over the past 15 years with the help of the IRC – individuals who have lived in fear, survived conflict, endured pain and loss, then sought refuge, overcome bureaucratic hurdles, and navigated through any number of disappointments, indignities, or delays – are individuals who have spent a good portion of their lives saying to themselves and their families, “let’s keeping going.”

And so, to those of you here tonight who were resettled by IRC Charlottesville:  of the myriad contributions you have made, it is this determination – this willingness to accept personal responsibility for rebuilding your life, to make the most of the initial support and services the IRC provides, and to make the best of the opportunities and resources that our community offers – that sets you apart and makes you role models not simply for other refugees, but for everyone in our community.

As an employer of IRC clients, I have seen determination in action.

I have seen Admir Hasanovic, who has never missed a work assignment or deadline in 12 years and who, with his wife Binasa, saved money, bought a car, bought a house, bought another car, then another.  I’ve seen Admir and Binasa, whose talented daughter Melisa graduated from PVCC and then UVA, and whose generosity and hospitality is such that no one ever leaves their home without a full belly and a full heart.

I have seen Kristina Constantine, who came to Charlottesville in 2004 with nothing but her sketchbook and her loving family and who, within 5 years, graduated at the top of her class from Parsons The New School for Design.  I’ve seen Kristina, who chose to leave New York and move back to Charlottesville, and who demonstrates every day that a world class designer does not have to live in Manhattan or Milan to be a creative powerhouse and a one-woman force for bringing more goodness and beauty into the world.

And I have seen Anelya Mkrtumova, who manages production for our customers in 48 states, supervises staff, goes to college at night, and, as everyone knows, really runs the show for us at Rivanna.  I’ve seen Anelya, who was recently asked to join the advisory board for Charlottesville Redevelopment and Housing Authority, and who accepted because, as she says, it’s time for her to give back to her community.

I have seen determination every day.  And with the contributions and collective determination of Admir, Kristina, Anelya, and other IRC clients, we’ve built a successful business that has created new jobs in our community not only for more recently-arrived refugees but for that other group in Charlottesville in dire need of employment:  recent UVA graduates.  And while it has not always been easy, when times are tough, I have always been able to turn to someone on our team who will say, without hesitation, “let’s keeping going.”

Like other employers in Charlottesville and across the country, I have come to depend on IRC clients not simply because of their solid work ethic, but because they bring with them unique and valuable strengths, experiences, perspectives, and skills.  And whether they are contributing professional expertise gained in another culture, “street smarts” honed in an informal economy, or the ingenuity and pragmatism that come from having had to “make do” with whatever they have in hand today, refugees, with their unique mix of resolve and resourcefulness, are making a difference every day in our workplace and in workplaces, schools, and neighborhoods throughout our country.

What’s more, with the IRC’s emphasis on self-reliance, refugees quickly become contributing members of our local and national economies.   They purchase goods and services.  They buy cars and homes.  They send their children to local colleges and universities. They create a stronger economic base for our entire community and their taxes help build our schools and hospitals and provide services to others in our community who most need them.

A single refugee in a workplace, a new family in a neighborhood, or a recently-arrived student in a school can bring a fresh perspective to everyone in the community.  And whether that perspective comes from sharing a work experience, a meal, a story, a photo, or a song, it can lead all of us to a better understanding of each other and to a better sense of what it takes to overcome the challenges that life throws our way.

And so, to those former IRC clients who are here tonight, we are grateful that somehow, some way, with the help of the International Rescue Committee, you made your way to Charlottesville.  We celebrate your achievements and thank you for all that you contributed to our lives here.  And to Susan Donovan, Harriet Kuhr, the IRC staff, volunteers, community advisory board members, supporters, and friends, we thank you for your tireless work over these past 15 years.  The refugees, asylees, and victims of human trafficking you have helped resettle have not simply rebuilt their own lives; they have transformed our community. We are deeply grateful for your heroic efforts to promote local and global tolerance, run interference, and build bridges, and for your advocacy on behalf of the over ten million refugees in the world today who continue to live in harm’s way and are still seeking safe haven.

Let’s all keep going.  Thank you.



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