Building Bridges, Finding Friendship: Refugee Stories matter 

There is a large population of refugee students at Boise State University, but their stories go overlooked and unheard too often. If you’re wondering how you might reach out your hand, how you might be able to make a difference or make a friend, keep reading.

“We had no choice. We had to leave our house during midnight. It was the first week of Taliban occupation,” said Sayed Bahauddin Mirbacha, freshman and double major in global studies and social work.

Before coming to the United States, Mirbacha had a life in Afghanistan and a future he was planning. When asked to tell his story, this is where he began.

Mirbacha and his family were forced to flee their home in Afghanistan due to Taliban occupation. First they flew to Qatar, and from there it was a dizzying, fast-paced series of locations: from Qatar to Bahrain, Washington D.C., Texas, New Mexico — until finally they ended up in Boise, Idaho.

It was a heartbreak most cannot fathom: to have your home, your life and your future ripped from you in less than a night isn’t something that’s easily conceived. But Mirbacha somehow managed to deal with the depression and the heartbreak and still prioritize his education. Just because the future he’d been planning was gone, didn’t mean that he couldn’t make a new one. 

In Afghanistan, Mirbacha was about to graduate high school. But in Boise, he was set back to a junior because of the language barrier. Mirbacha originally relied on Google Translate to understand his teachers and classmates, but he was determined to learn English.

“I never gave up. I started to advocate for myself,” Mirbacha said. Not only a determined student but a quick learner, Mirbacha worked with his teachers to better understand the material. His grades improved, but more importantly so did his passion for life as he became involved with environmental preservation and activism, working with Idaho Climate Justice League and campaigning for mental health with Services of String.

The U.S. Refugee Resettlement program provides protection for refugees who have fled their home country and grants them permission to stay, and protection against refoulement (forced return). Boise is one of these resettlement cities from a choice administered by the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, and since 1975, the region has acted as shelter for over 30,000 refugees.

There are many who can relate to Mirbacha’s story, who have stories of their own. And Boise State is working to make sure that these voices have a platform on which to stand so when they speak up, their voices are heard. 

Boise State’s School of Public Service partnered with the Multilingual Student Alliance and English Language Support Programs to provide events titled “Building Bridges, Finding Friendship.” College students from refugee and immigrant backgrounds were given the opportunity to tell these stories and talk openly about the hardships of their lives. 

Leading these events are members of the Refugee Speakers Bureau Joel Ntando, Beth Norton and Mike Stefancic from School of Public Service.

Stefancic works tirelessly to create a welcoming environment for students with refugee backgrounds by coordinating events that give them more of a voice, such as this one. 

“We’ve really thematically designed this around students who have a refugee background in order to speak about that. Drawing these connections and building community is really the goal because we have a youth mental health crisis here in our country — you’ll hear a lot of the speakers talk about that here today, about how building community has been so essential in building friendships,” Stepancic said. “I hope it breaks down this idea of a refugee being somebody different than yourself. That could be any one of us at any point in time.”

The event did more than give a platform for voices that might otherwise not be encouraged to speak — it was a call for action within our community. The desire to connect is innate in all of us: all we need to do is follow our instincts, and really see the people we talk to.

One of these people, these dreamers with a refugee background, was Yeva Varaksa. A former student, Varaska’s story was told in a low, steady voice, a golden bracelet glinting on her wrist from where her godmother placed it on her the last time Varaksa saw her in a war-ravaged Ukraine.

Varaska’s experience as a refugee from Ukraine was another heartbreaking tale — to watch your loved ones suffer is a unique grief to the soul. But when her experience darkened with her own depression, such heartbreak turned debilitating. Ultimately, there was hope as people reached out to her. Building those bridges with that simplicity of one question, “are you alright?” 

Sometimes it’s intimidating to approach a stranger. Maybe you think you’ll do more harm than good, or it isn’t your place because you haven’t had the same experiences. But in Varaska’s case, it’s all quite simple.  When asked how best to support people in crisis she said, “Just be there. Just be there for the person.”

Now, a student at Boise State, Mirbacha is double majoring in global studies and social work, in addition to a certificate for human rights. To say the least, his ambition and drive has only grown since his time at Boise State. 

Mirbacha wants to make the world a better place and believes that change starts with the individual. For Varaska, that change was someone reaching out to ask if she was alright. 

When asked how one should reach out, Mirbacha just smiled. “It’s not that hard…it’s just a really good advice for all the people — not just for the students or for the people with the refugee backgrounds…if you want to make a friendship, the first thing you can do is reach out to the person sitting beside you and say hi, what’s your name?”

You never know what story someone is holding — sometimes it really is just that simple to change the world.

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