“Ask me where I am going, not where I am from”

RefugeesThe 2013 Refugees Services Consultation is going on this week and brings together hundreds of refugees and organizations from all over the state for training, networking, presentations and more. The people at the consultation amazing. Here are just a few of their stories. As one of them said today, “Ask me where I am going, not where I am from.” Get ready to be inspired:

Dode Ackey
City: Tampa
Date of Arrival in the US: September 1996
Dode came to the U.S. from the West African country of Benin in 1996. Dode was 18 years old when his family fled Togo to escape political violence and moved to the neighboring country of the Republic of Benin. Since he was not a resident of Benin his only option was to pay for private schooling and he did this by selling shirts in the local market. When he arrived in Tampa Bay, Dode worked in a local warehouse and put a priority on obtaining his education. Since his arrival, Dode has graduated with a B.S. in Finance and two Masters Degrees, an MBA from University of South Florida and an MS in Accounting from the University of Tampa, all with full honors. Dode has gone on to obtain a position at Citigroup Inc. where he now works as an Assistant Vice President and to teach accounting classes at Hillsborough Community College. In addition, Dode and his wife started the Africa International University Foundation, whose mission is to launch non-profit schools in the Republic of Benin and Niger where literacy levels are still only 10% and there is no free education for middle and high school youth. Dode speaks four languages fluently, is a U.S. citizen and is married to Florence Ackey, who works with the Refugee Health Clinic. Together they have two children.

Christy Sui 
City: Tampa
Date of Arrival in the US: June 2007
Christy is a Burmese of Chin ethnicity and she came to the U.S. from Malaysia in 2007. Christy’s work with refugees began in Malaysia where she had been studying for her B.A. when Burmese refugees began arriving there to apply for official refugee status. Christy speaks 10 different Burmese languages and so began serving as a volunteer interpreter for UNHCR in Malaysia. She also worked as a secretary for the Chin Refugee center and taught Chin students at the Chin Student Association. Christy eventually got a job with UNHCR in Malaysia where she worked until leaving for the U.S. in 2007 as a refugee herself. Since coming to Tampa Bay, Christy has lead the formation of an ethnic community based organization, The Tampa Bay Burmese Council, and she is now serving as the President of this nonprofit agency that assists newly arriving Burmese refugees. Christy also works full time as a Resettlement Specialist at Catholic Charities and is an active volunteer at First Baptist Church of Temple Terrace and the Tampa Bay Gardens–which is an innovative agricultural program for refugees in Tampa. Christy was the winner of the Hillsborough County Human Rights Award in 2011 for her ongoing advocacy and dedication to refugees in Tampa Bay. Christy is now a U.S. citizen and was recently married.

Pastor Reuben Hrang
City: Tampa
Date of Arrival in the US: May 2011
Since his arrival in Tampa Bay in 2011 from Malaysia, Pastor Reuben has become an integral part of the community helping many Burmese refugees to access needed services and integrate more seamlessly. Pastor Reuben works on behalf of the refugee community at a number of different levels. First, he served as the Secretary of the local Ethnic Community Based Organization, the Tampa Bay Burmese Council. In this role he not only provided leadership for the Council, but also provided direct client services such as transportation and interpretation to clients who call on the ECBO for assistance. In addition, Pastor Reuben recruited a group of 10 Chin families to work at the local Tampa Bay Gardens project, planting and harvesting fruits and vegetables. Since Pastor Reuben got involved, the Chin section of the garden is thriving! Pastor Reuben also works closely with refugee service providers and attends all Refugee Task Force meetings in order to ensure that the Burmese community’s voice is heard. Pastor Reuben was selected to represent the State of Florida at the 2012 Office of Refugee Resettlement National Consultation in Washington, DC.

Desiree Dayhoff
City: Naples
Date of Arrival in the US: June 2006
Desiree came to the U.S. from Cuba in 2006 via the Mexican border. Once she settled in the Naples area, Desiree got a job at the Doubletree Suites by Hilton and worked her way up to holding the position of Executive Housekeeper. In this position Desiree has focused on hiring a staff of mostly Cuban refugees and has launched innovative practices such as holding English classes and Citizenship classes for her housekeeping team which helps them both personally and professionally. Desiree also offers financial literacy workshops and six of the current housekeeping staff are now homeowners. With her consistent team building and pursuit of excellence, Desiree’s housekeeping team of Cuban refugees has won the prestigious Doubletree by Hilton’s “Excellence in Housekeeping” award three years in a row. Desiree is an active member of the Collier Refugee Task Force and was selected to represent the State of Florida at the “First National Refugee Congress” in Washington, DC organized by the UNHCR in 2011. In the past two years, Desiree has become a U.S. citizen herself and gotten married.

Margarito Broche
City: Miami
Date of Arrival in the US: 2011
In 1991, Margarito Broche began to actively denounce the violations of Human Rights in Cuba, which led to his first imprisonment in 1992, when he served a sentence of six months. After leaving the prison, he pursued his activities opposing the regime; he was constantly harassed and, threatened by the police. On 25 December 1997, he established the National Association of Rafters for Peace, Democracy and Freedom (he had tried once to leave Cuba by raft but had been returned), which aimed to end human rights violations, and monitor migratory agreements between Cuba and the United States, 1995 – with returnees Rafters to Cuba.

On March 18, 2003 he was among 75 opponents of President Fidel Castro that were arrested in a crackdown on the opposition that has come to be known as the “Black Spring.” He was imprisoned for “violating the independence, sovereignty and economy” and sentenced to 25 years imprisonment. While jailed he developed major health problems and was released and allowed to leave the country. Margarito and his wife Maria Noa, a founding member of the Damas de Blanco [Ladies in White–wives and relatives of the 75 opposition leaders imprisoned in 2003] were admitted to the U.S. as refugees and Margarito received medical treatment.

Margarito and Maria settled in Miami. Margarito continues to bring attention to the plight of fellow prisoners of conscience in Cuba and is also the president of the “Grupo De Los 75 Y Damas De Blanco En El Exilio” [Group of 75 and Ladies in White in Exile]. He is very involved in helping former Cuban political prisoners who have resettled in Miami to navigate the system and get access to benefits and support they need to begin a new life and hopefully integrate in their new community.

Geras Shoukulu
City: Miami
Date of Arrival in the US: 2005
This week we will also hear from a young man who lived through the horror of the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but lost his parents. In 2005, he arrived here with two younger brothers, still legally a child himself. After turning 18, he entered the independent living program, and has since completed his GED and obtained multiple vocational training certificates. In just 8 years, this young man has built a career; married and became a parent; and bought a lovely home. On top of all those responsibilities, he was compelled to reunite his family, and in 2011 this young man and his wife became the foster parents to his youngest brother, now 13-year-old. The two have also become a source of support to other refugee children and youth within the Unaccompanied Refugee Program.

Carmen Jaqueline Gimenez
City: Miami
Date of Arrival in the US: November 2008
Carmen was born in Caracas Venezuela. She won a scholarship to study a specialization in International Trade and Custom and created a model of integration, through private agreements, for The Americas. She founded a non-profit in 2004 to promote the Americas Integration model she created. Carmen was also active politically. She wrote opinion articles in newspapers promoting the work of the private sector. She participated in marches and strikes and was persecuted, threatened, and intimidated by government officials for her actions. She moved to Argentina seeking safety and then to the US, where she was granted political asylum.

After arriving in US, Carmen launched a webpage http://www.USA-Refugees.com seeking to create a place to exchange information, communication, education, and culture, but also to share experiences, to become a site of friendship for refugees in the US, and to set an example to the world. She was a member of the Miami-Dade Refugee Advisory Panel and participated in the Miami-Dade Refugee Task Force. She organized the 2012 World Refugee Day event in Miami-Dade County, which was attended by over 150 people.

Daniel Haile
City: Jacksonville
Date of Arrival in the US: September 2011
Daniel is a young man from Ethiopia forced to flee because of mixed Eritrean/Ethiopian heritage. Daniel was quickly noticed as a leader with the ability to rise and lead others and was elected President of a newly formed African Community Based Organization in Jacksonville. Soon after arrival in Jacksonville in September 2011, Daniel met members of a local foundation that saw his potential and agreed to provide a scholarship for his continued college education seeking an engineering degree. The foundation requires recipients to pay it forward and Daniel has already started doing so. He established the Jacksonville African Community Organization, Inc. The group already does volunteer projects and has also begun meeting every newly arrived refugee from Eritrea and Ethiopia within a couple of days after arrival in the US to welcome them and help explain the inner workings of life in the U.S. Daniel is a full time university student, works part time and still makes the time to organize the organizations members doing volunteer activities.

Walfrank Piñeiro
City: Orlando
Date of Arrival in the US: June 2011
Walfrank is 15 years old. He came from Cuba with his parents and two younger siblings on June 3rd 2011 under the Family Reunification Program.

He attended the Martires de Barbados School in Cuba where he completed eighth grade and his team won national championship two years in a row. When he came to Orlando, Orange County Public school system wanted him to stay in eighth grade due to his young age and his English language limitations; however, an exception was made and he was enrolled in ninth grade. With tutorial assistance from Catholic Charities Youth and Family Services (a DCF Refugee Services funded program) he is slowly learning the language and has made Honor Roll each school semester.

Two years after his arrival from Cuba, Walfrank and his family has made great progress in the US. Walfrank was nominated by his teachers for the Wekiva High School Highest Honor” Principal’s Prepare for Greatness Award. This award is given to a student at each grade level who best exemplifies the school’s mission – a student who reaches the highest standards of academic and personal success. In addition, Walfrank will also be awarded the Spirit of Excellence Award by Orange County Public School Multilingual Parent Leadership Council for his achievements.

Walfrank has been a great asset to the Wekiva High School baseball team. He was voted “Pitcher of the Year by the Wekiva High School Baseball team for 2012 season.

Both of his parents, Francisco Piñeiro and Johanna Aparicio are very proud and supportive of their son.

Last year, Walfrank was nominated by Catholic Charities Youth and Family Program and received a “Certificate of Achievement” during the celebration of 2012 World Refugee Day at Orlando City Hall.

Francisco Piñeiro, Walfrank’s father worked as an installer of security systems in Cuba. Three months after arriving in Orlando he got a job as a brick layer but due to the downturn in construction, he was laid off. He has been working at Energy Air as an air ducts installer a bit over one year.

Walfrank’s parents Johanna Aparicio (mother) Francisco Piñeiro (Father) can be reached at 321-201-2091


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