Category Archives: Refugees

Project Everyday Hope

Posted by Aime KalangwaPerson crouching down next to refugee

My story helps illustrate my reasons for recently starting my organization, “Everyday Hope,” which aims to assist orphaned refugee children.

I am a refugee from DR Congo in Africa. I have been living in the United States since 20ll. I was an asylum seeker living as a refugee in Uganda for three years until I was resettled to the U.S. and provided with foster parents and an education. I lost my parents when I was l4-years-old to rebels who targeted my father because he was a government soldier and they wanted confidential government documents from him. I watched rebels torture and murder him before they killed my family one by one each day. Because of some government documents, I lost my parents, three sisters and five brothers. I survived with my younger brother. After that, my brother and I left our hometown with only the clothes on our backs and no idea where we were going.

After a few weeks walking in the jungle, we found ourselves in Uganda. Once we were in Uganda, I was sick, hungry, and hopeless for the future. I didn’t know where to start, or where to go for help. I didn’t even know what being a refugee meant. I had no family and no friends. I was in a new country that used a different language. At that time, I could only hope to find safety. At this point, I did not know the UN Refugee Agency existed, nor did I know how to access the protection they provided. There was nobody in Uganda to guide me through the process. I was homeless in the city since I didn’t know anything about the refugee camp. I pushed myself and was able to complete the process myself but it was really hard and there were many challenges. At that time I needed food, shelter, safety, as well as education, hope, affection and counselling services, but I did not receive any of them. I wanted to be treated as other children were being treated but I was not.

Eventually, through the help of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, HIAS and the Refugee Law Protect, RLP, I was lucky to access UN refugee protection. After 3 years, that protection helped me with third world country resettlement to the US. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops helped me in Florida to get foster parents and to pay for my education.

I still ask myself, what about those who are not as strong as I was to get up and fight for themselves? What happens to those who are sick, hungry, and hopeless, especially those who do not know how to access the process like I had? I was lucky to be resettled, but I do not think life should be based on luck. There are many orphaned refugee children who are dying in the streets in Uganda because they do not have anyone to guard them, show them how to register as a refugee, and access the help they need.

“Everyday Hope” was founded to help orphaned refugee children who arrive in Uganda so they may initiate the process for registration and learn how to access protection. The program also helps to also identify and verify those children who qualify for help. This project aims to help refugee kids who do not have other options to get off the streets where they are vulnerable to prostitution, violence and, in some cases, death. We want to offer them some everyday hope.

To learn more about Everyday Hope, please visit or email

My Journey to America

Guest post by Noel Hernandez, a Cuban refugee and American citizen.

Noel Hernandez

Noel, left, at a Hispanic Heritage event in West Palm Beach.

I came to the United States almost six years ago with my wife, 2-year-old little girl, and an almost empty backpack to begin a new life. I was 33 years old at the time.

People from all over the world have come to this fantastic country for many different reasons: they come to escape poverty, get a better life and better opportunities. Most are seeking prosperity, but many others are forced to leave their homeland as a result of circumstance. Like these people, my family and I left to escape the oppression of a repressive communist government of Cuba.

Freedom, for me, is not just a word. It holds a precious value, especially to those of us who have suffered from discrimination for publicly professing a creed or belief. As most of you are aware, in Cuba the majority of our rights as citizens are controlled by the government. Our family, freedom, economy, opinions, and even the religious point of views are generally ruled by the regime. The fact that I come from a Christian family made us suffer under Cuban communism for more than 30 years. Some of my family members were placed in “re-education camps,” others were not able to receive a good education or good jobs. As punishment, they were forced by their teachers to renounce their religious practices.

During my childhood we were pushed to the lowest level of society. We grew to hate the system and were forced to confront it. I suffered from the consequences of those confrontations, religious intolerance of my classmates and later my colleagues.

In one day, all of my political problems would end while I was a teacher at Havana University. I had been teaching there for three years when one morning something unexpected happened. While trying to relieve stress and make my students feel confident before a test I told them, “Don’t worry, God is in control.” Six hours later the university decided to end my contract as a teacher. As you can imagine, everything changed in a blink of an eye.

Being unemployed, it was a struggle to support my family. It was hard for me to find a decent job on the island and eventually my marriage started to feel the negative effects. As a professional, as a father and as a husband I felt I had failed. This was the moment to make a drastic decision, and it’s the best I have ever made.  It was time to move on and find a better place for the three of us, a place where freedom is not a dream. A place where not everything is perfect, but gives you the chance to shape your own destiny. This place is a country that makes you feel that you are an essential part of it, this is America.

Coming here was a bit frightening. It was horribly hard to leave what I had known for more than 30 years. Starting over, facing a new culture, new people and uncertain expectations definitely scared me, but it did not stop me!  Luckily I came with English skills that provided me the opportunity to quickly find a job after four months of being here. I started to work in a hotel as a housekeeping person, a night cleaner. Later I progressed to a supervisor, and finally a manager. Believe me this is something that I’ve learned to admire and respect about this country: it doesn’t matter what you do, when you do it right you keep moving up.

In 2009, after two years in this country, I became an Adult Education teacher, completing the first important step up the ladder of my dreams. I knew eventually the day would come when I would fulfill my dreams and help others come to America too. Since that moment on I have been serving and helping people succeed. Honestly, my role as a teacher/facilitator was not limited to teaching subjects. I also taught my students to be patient and focus on their goals. I helped them understand their possibilities depend on the size of their dreams. I encouraged them to achieve whatever expectations they had and keep a positive attitude no matter the obstacles and difficulties they faced. You have to fight for what you want and it is not an easy road; it demands discipline, sacrifice, and responsibility. However, the rewarding outcome will be worth of all their efforts one day.

I was extremely blessed when I was promoted to Program Administrator in 2010. Working as a Project Transition Refugee Educational Program supervisor has given me the chance to help refugees and asylees in their acculturation process.  Guiding and watching them grow as individuals in a new society makes me feel that all my efforts, my suffering, and all my difficult times were not in vain.

People can think or tell you whatever they want about the immigrant experience in America. The opportunity for me to be here today has a deep and great meaning. I have found many reasons to help others through my circumstances. I am convinced that I am in the perfect place. Not only am I grateful to this country for all that it has given to me, I’m also grateful that America taught me that everything is possible.

In January 2013, I fulfilled another of my biggest goals; I was naturalized here in this office. I swear that it was one of the best days of my life!  Despite my pride of my Hispanic heritage, America is now my country. I hope people never forget that this country is filled with grateful immigrants like me; the United States has given me tremendous support. Now I’m responsible for demonstrating to new immigrants that come here that they must give from the heart in order to receive the best from this land.

As a human being, as a father, as a husband, as an American, now I feel safe, confident and happy. My whole life has changed for the better.  Martin Luther King once said, “I have a dream,” well I have a dream too … right now I’m living the best part of it. I am proud to be a free American, to say without being censured, “Don’t worry, God is in control!”

Aime’s Story

Post by DCF Secretary David Wilkins

Yesterday and over the past few weeks, we have been holding events in honor of World Refugee Day. More refugees flee to Florida than any other state, and DCF is charged with administering federal funding to refugees to help them acclimate to American culture and society.

This unique population encounters many challenges—from learning English to becoming familiar with modern conveniences, such as indoor plumbing and electricity. Despite these obstacles, we know many refugees who are living in Florida are not only getting by, they are thriving.

Aime Kalangwa

Aime Kalangwa

Just a few weeks ago, I had the privilege of meeting Aime Kalangwa a young man from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Aime and his brother came to Florida in 2011 as the only survivors in their family of their country’s ongoing civil war. They were adopted by a supportive, loving family just as he was beginning his senior year of high school.

With the help of his adoptive parents, Aime tackled cultural and language barriers head-on. He dedicated himself to his studies by working with tutors daily to pass his classes and learn English. Learning American history was particularly challenging because all the material was new. He had never heard of George Washington, the Bill of Rights or the Civil Rights Movement—it was all new to him. But he didn’t just get by; he excelled. His dedication to learning the history of his new country was recognized when he received the award for Outstanding Achievement in American History at his senior awards night.

Today, he continues to pursue his education at Broward College studying Criminal Justice. He is an activist, spokesperson and mentor for other young refugees and is looking forward to becoming an American citizen when he graduates.

Aime’s is just one of the many stories of refugees who flee from war and oppression, build a new life and thrive. Their stories truly inspire and show us that the American dream is alive and well here in Florida.

Only three students survived.

Guest post by Janet Blair, DCF SunCoast Refugee Services. As we approach World Refugee Day on June 20, we will share a few stories from local refugees & former refugees about their experiences. This story is about Elida Mujic, Client Relations Coordinator at DCF and former Bosnian refugee.

The Class of 1993 in Gorazde, Bosnia—only three of these students survived

The Class of 1993 in Gorazde, Bosnia—only three of these students survived

Elida Mujic is packing for what should have been her 20th high school reunion.  Except that a few months after this picture was taken, in April of 1992, a war erupted in Bosnia that changed everything for Elida and her classmates. Instead of graduating side by side, most of these students lost their lives in an ethnic war that left approximately 100,000 people dead from Muslim, Croatian and Serbian backgrounds.

Elida is just 17 years old in the photo above, standing in the front row, second to the right. Ironically she is wearing a blue jacket with an American flag on it. She had no idea that soon after this picture was taken she would be fleeing her country under an assumed name and that years later end up as a refugee in the United States.

For her, the war started on a day that Elida says was just like any other day, April 12th of 1992. She was on the school bus going home that afternoon when suddenly the driver stopped due to a barricade in the road. The students ended up being held hostage on the bus for over three hours. None of their parents knew where they were. Eventually the students were released to go home and learned that a war had broken out across their country. Her home was never safe again. From that point on there were always grenades going off and guns shooting all around them. It was particularly unsafe for young women, who were being taken to camps and sexually assaulted.

To protect her, Elida’s parents found a way for her to be smuggled out of Bosnia across the border to Serbia, She had to pretend to be Serbian, change her name and pretend not to be who she was. Serbian friends of the family took her in as their daughter when she changed her identity. She had to get rid of anything that identified her as a Muslim, even her own diary. Then the Serbian family came and took me to their home pretending she was their daughter while her parents stayed behind. She became a refugee in Serbia under the name of Bojana when she was 17.

At the time, Elida didn’t understand why her parents made her leave – in fact she was very angry with them. It’s only now as a parent of two children that she understands the difficult decision her parents made ended up saving her life. Now she feels blessed to have made it and to have the opportunity to make something of her life. She realized that many others were never given that chance. Some had such short lives and were taken way too soon. She saw babies and 5-year-old neighbor children killed. She saw children who woke up to find their mother dead.

Elida, her husband Damir and children Armand and Ariana on a trip to Ellis Island in 2010

Elida, her husband Damir and children Armand and Ariana on a trip to Ellis Island in 2010.

So Elida’s actual graduation day was held away from her family and friends in the neighboring country of Serbia in 1993 alongside students she had only known for nine months. Now, 20 years later, Elida is going home to Gorazde, Bosnia for a bittersweet class reunion with those who should have been her fellow graduates in June of 1993.  Through using social media like Facebook, the survivors have been able to locate at least 60 people from several schools who would have been graduating seniors in 1993.  On June 29th these sixty survivors will come together from the places all over the world where they scattered during the war, and commemorate a graduation that should have taken place. It will be a celebration for those who survived and a time of remembering those who are missing.

For Elida, the trip will also be an opportunity to share her history with her children, 15-year-old Armand and 10-year-old Ariana. Although Elida became a U.S. citizen in 2006, she wants her children to feel connected to her home country and her refugee experience so they know where they came from and what brought them here. You never know what a person has lived through and what made them come to America. World Refugee Day is a chance every year to recognize refugees who have been through so much. The refugee programs touch so many who are looking for a new beginning here in this country.

“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 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