"We're all people. We all want to thrive."
Posted on By Rivanna
It's been 12 years since Rivanna's Kristina Constantine and Anelya Mrktumova arrived in America with their parents. Today they speak to CBS19 about their experiences as refugees and their hopes for the future.
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (NEWSPLEX) -- In the past 20 years, Charlottesville has accepted more than 3,000 refugees from dozens of countries.
The Syrian refugee crisis is causing people to question the refugee process and its use.
At least two Syrian families have already arrived in the Charlottesville area, and officials with the International Rescue Committee say it's a great place for them to seek safety.
It's been 12 years since Kristina Constantine and her family fled their home in eastern Europe and resettled in Charlottesville.
Along with Kristina, mother Margarita Konstantin, father Armenak Mkrtumov and younger sister Anelya Mkrtumova (all of which carry a different spelling for his or her last name) entered the United States through the IRC in 2004.
"Our family is an Armenian family that lived in Russia for many years after ethnic conflict," explained Kristina. "It was that challenging time in the history of the Soviet Union that was coming to its end where a lot of ethnic conflicts were bursting out and people were in conflict everywhere."
Kristina's parents said they remember the struggles with vivid clarity.
"It's very difficult," said Margarita. "It was a situation that can be described as genocide against Armenians. Like any mother I wanted a happy future for my children."
Margarita said she was able to find that future through the IRC's help.
"People don't become refugees because of an earthquake or a tsunami or economic reasons," said IRC Executive Director Harriet Kuhr. "It's legally defined as a reasonable fear of persecution."
Kuhr said the organization helps refugee families with everything from heath care to employment to school.
Kristina's younger sister Anelya was 16 when the family arrived and that meant starting at a new high school.
"The challenge was language because I had no English," said Anelya of her first years at Charlottesville High School.
But she stressed it was a small price to pay for the opportunity to start fresh.
"I was excited to move," she said. "My family went through so much hardship over the years, so for me it was like a fresh beginning."
"I think if you ask the families, one of the things they'll say is very important to them is they feel safe here because so many of them are coming from terrible, terrifying conditions," added Kuhr.
Kuhr insisted the Charlottesville community is particularly helpful.
Both Kristina and Anelya work at a small business making award plaques and corporate gifts out of environmentally-friendly material.
For Kristina, a design school graduate, the position was a perfect fit, but the opportunity wasn't presented by accident.
"My boss is an amazing person," Kristina said of Crystal Mario.
Mario, who is founder and CEO of Rivanna Natural Designs in Charlottesville, said she started the business in 2001 for one reason.
"I had an idea that I wanted to start a company to create employment for recently arrived refugees," she said.
Fifteen years later, she currently employs six refugees, some of whom have been on the payroll since the company began.
"I couldn't ask for better employees," Mario said. "To give people an opportunity to get back on their feet. People who may have had very successful careers in the past or very promising futures that may have been cut short through circumstances completely beyond their control."
"I wish that we could all just stop and think what it would be like to be put in that situation of having to run away from everything you because you think you might get killed," said Kuhr. "And have to start again somewhere else."
For Kristina's family, the idea has been a reality and her father, Armenak, said he has just one regret.
"The only thought that crosses my mind is that I wish we would have come sooner," he said.
"Refugees are immigrants," said Anelya. "We're all people, we all want to thrive and if we just support each other and help each other, the world will become a different place."
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