‘I’ve made Madison my home’: Refugees share achievements, challenges on World Refugee Day

MADISON, Wis. — On Monday, stories of success, pain, and challenges filled a room at Christ Presbyterian Church. Refugees who made Madison their new homes shared those messages, hoping to inspire and instruct on World Refugee Day.  

“It’s not about a celebration only, it’s about a wakeup call,” said Kassim Rajab, who arrived in Madison about 3.5 years ago.  

Speaking on a panel organized by Jewish Social Services in Madison and Open Doors for Refugees, Rajab was one of many from the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has been suffering war and genocide for close to 30 years.  

“Someone who has never tasted war cannot understand how it feels like you leave everything behind you — even leave some of your dreams,” he said.  

The United Nations General Assembly established June 20 as World Refugee Day back in 2000. Their theme this year — “Every person on this planet has a right to seek safety – whoever they are, wherever they come from, and whenever they are forced to flee.” 

Stories like Rajab’s and those of his Congolese friend Kasereka Lukando were marked by the hardship they fled, and the sometimes-difficult process ahead.  

“A refugee is not something you celebrate or feel proud to be called because once you’re a refugee you’ll go through a lot,” said Lukando.  

So World Refugee Day holds a different meaning for him. “When I commemorate such a day, such event, it is to try to show support, to those who are still going through those situations, to show we are together with them.”  

That support — coming from Jewish Social Services in Madison — helped many of the refugees who spoke. 

“The refugees that are growing and thriving in Madison add to our community and bring lots of positive impacts including economic including cultural and it’s a good thing that Madison is such a welcoming community,” said Becca Schwartz, Resettlement Director.  

After fleeing the DRC, Rajab spent 10 years in Uganda as a refugee before settling here with his younger brother. He now has a job helping other refugees get settled in Madison.  

But after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he feels many others in need are being overlooked. 

“You wonder like are Congolese lives more or less important than Ukrainians? It’s not a good politics, it’s like a double standard that affects the population of Congo,” he said.

The World Refugee Day event took a pause due to the pandemic, further stressing Muntadher Alshammari and his disabled brother’s arrival from Iraq. 

“We had to stay kind of at home as much as possible to like to make sure that any one of us won’t get COVID, it was just unknown. and unknown is scary,” said the Iraqi refugee. 

Muntadher has since started studying cybersecurity at Madison College. 

His is one of many happy endings these refugees chalk up to their new community. 

“I’ve made Madison my home and I was one of the lucky refugees to be settled in Madison,” Rajab said.