Storytelling concert puts local refugees on stage

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On Nov. 13, students, professors and musicians took the stage at Michigan State University’s Cook Recital Hall to share experiences about what it is like to be a refugee.

Emily Worline, founder of the nonprofit Refugee Outreach Kalamazoo, said the goal of this storytelling concert was to help demolish the divide between refugees and other Americans.

Worline said her experience volunteering in Greece drove her to start the nonprofit group. While overseas, Worline said she was overwhelmed by the generosity from refugees who expected nothing back in return.

“They fed me, they thanked me, they gave me their last fork and they went without and yet I knew that I did nothing for them,” Worline said.

One night during her trip, Worline said she decided to make a late-night trip to deliver aid to some nearby protesters. Worline said 10 minutes into the walk she became terrified, realizing the seriousness of the environment. Worline said a little boy emerged from the path, grabbed her hand and walked with her the rest of the way.

“I had no idea where I was going. The situation was incredibly intense. I was terrified and I shouldn’t have put myself in that situation,” Worline said. “But for someone less than a third my age to watch out for me through the entire journey and to show me such compassion, I should be able to do the same for others.”

Worline said she left Greece two months earlier than she anticipated due to an overwhelming feeling of uselessness.

“I felt like I was making no impact in a situation that was really needing a change,” Worline said. “There were people who were really transforming my life forever and I wasn’t able to do anything for them.”

Mladjo Ivanovic, a doctoral student in the Department of Philosophy at Michigan State University, said the mentality of the West to care less about those who are different creates a huge problem for the rest of the world.

“Especially being a refugee, I’ve had a hint of what it means to be the other in a community,” Ivanovic said. “It’s not really that entertaining, believe me.”

Ivanovic said he and his mother escaped from the Bosnian War as refugees.

“We are all vulnerable,” he said. “It can happen to me. It can happen to you. It can happen to many people here, and I think that is where humanity should prevail and sadly it fails all the time.”

Ivanovic said it is frustrating knowing how policies that segregate communities have impacted Europe.

“To lose the country, to lose the home, to lose family members, to lose children drowned in the sea because people in Europe build walls,” Ivanovic said. “That echoes someone in the U.S. who is ready to build another wall.”

Ivanovic said the conditions refugees endure are not caused by accidents but situations that have historical causes in which westerners typically benefit from.

“These experiences these people have do not tell us about themselves as much as they tell us about ourselves and what we cause with our omission, ignorance and denial,” said Ivanovic.

Ivanovic said he does not agree with the stereotype he has heard for refugees by some American politicians.

“Not everyone is a terrorist. Not everyone is anti-U.S,” he said. “Not everyone has a cultural bias or hate or finds the adaptation into our society difficult. We actually just forget that adaptation doesn’t mean assimilation. We should respect diversity. We should respect other people and their views as long as those views do not violate the rights of others.”

Liz Vangyi, president of the MSU Hmong American Student Association, said members of her organization want to share stories about their refugee status, too.

“The biggest thing that I would love for everyone to take away is that being a refugee,  it’s very hard,” Vangyi said. “It comes with a lot of struggles because you are being displaced and you don’t really have a place to call your home.”

Touger Lee, a 19-year-old member of the MSU Hmong American Student Association, also spoke at the event about his experience escaping from the war in Laos.

“It was chaos at the airport,” Lee said. “People were struggling to board the plane. On that day it seemed like if you were able leave Laos you would survive, and if you couldn’t you would be killed. Luckily my mother and my younger siblings were able to board a plane to Thailand.”

Lee said at that moment, it was just him and his father left in Laos. Lee said his father told him that he would get on the next plane no matter what. Another plane landed and they ran to it.

“There were many people there already and we noticed there was a colonel there on the plane,” Lee said. “He only wanted his family members to board the plane.”

Lee said his father and his bodyguards tried to push him onto the plane but the colonel guarding the plane kept pushing him down. Eventually he pulled out his handgun and pointed it at Lee’s head.

“I thought he was going to shoot me,” Lee said. “I heard my father say to him, ‘At this rate we are all going to die here.’”

Lee said eventually he felt somebody grab his hand and pull him onto the airplane — it was his father’s closest friend and cousin.

“He was able to push the colonel away from the door, and within a few seconds I heard gun shots,” Lee said. “At that moment it was the scariest moment of my life.”

Lee said he was trembling and crying. Forty-five minutes later the airplane landed in Thailand. His father was able to board the next plane.

Lee said that based on the 2016 presidential election, it is hard to tell what the public opinion is on immigration, so the group tries to be objective in their approach for awareness.

“No matter what the situation is it is important to show who we are in a way that won’t get other people offended,” Lee said. “I want people to take away that I have been through hard times too, but we are still growing.”