Today is International Women’s Day, a day to celebrate women’s contributions to society. For over two decades, ReWA has held in-person celebration on March 8, bringing together our community: staff, students, clients, and community supporters—women, men, non-binary persons—to eat, drink, dance, sing and laugh.
Because of the pandemic, we are sharing stories virtually today. In 2020, life changed, new struggles emerged. Through it all, ReWA has been here to help immigrants and refugees stay connected to resources, education and community.
By reading this, you too are part of the ReWA community. Please share these stories of hope, hard work, joy, and above all, perseverance.
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After 30 years at ReWA, youth job readiness training coordinator, Tsege Tsegay, retired in December. Although she never realized her dream job, she spent a career helping others reach theirs…
For former ReWA board member, Sister Charlotte Van Dyke, the upheaval of 2020 reminds her of the 1960s, as well as the uncertain transition of presidential power in 1945.
Nan is among the many local Burmese activists calling for an end to the military coup in Myanmar. She is learning English at ReWA so she and other activists make their voices heard.…
Like many ReWA clients, Rumeisa’s childhood was uprooted by war, and she spent many years in a refugee camp in Ethiopia. Now she is learning to fly…
Five years ago, Mones was learning English and adjusting to American high school. Now she is lending her experience to urban planning and has her heart set on an architecture career…
Fereshte left a career in IT marketing to help immigrants and refugees access resources through ReWA’s Day 1 program. “I’ve been in their shoes and now I am giving back.”
Although Mahi didn’t start school until she was 6, she made up for lost time. Her love of math and science have help propelled her into a technical career in coding…
A year ago, Razeia knew no English and had never had a job. When the pandemic hit, a new opportunity came her way. Now she is at the top of her ESL class and found a job suited to her talents…
Layal is a chemist by training and speaks English with a precision that belies the unbridled curiosity of an inventor’s mind.
LAYAL: A Passion for Knowledge
If you ever have the chance to converse with Layal, do. She is a chemist by training and speaks English –a language she taught herself only recently–with a precision that belies the unbridled curiosity of an inventor’s mind.
Before coming to the U.S. in 2019 and seeking asylum, she completed her master’s degree in physical chemistry in Syria. Layal’s research related to using chemical processes to clean and maintain environmental conditions, which has countless applications in environmental and industrial fields.
Although her mother’s family, including her uncle whom she described as “a genius” all had some higher education, she was the first to continue on to post-graduate studies. She said, “It’s not the norm for unmarried women in Syria to pursue higher education after a certain age, but my mother encouraged me.”
“The passion for knowledge is in my blood. I remember the day we buried my uncle, it was like putting a library into the dirt.”
When Layal received a small amount of money for work as a tutor, she gave some of it to her mother. “My mother was so excited, she said, ‘This money you earned by your own effort, your own knowledge.’”
At the same time, Layal taught herself English with the hopes of going abroad to escape the Syrian war. She said, “The war was devastating on both a personal and national scale, challenging my resolve, but also giving me a clear reason to keep working hard and fighting for hope.”
She kept working in the university lab as she finished her master’s degree, but with equipment broken and chemicals missing, it was in poor shape. Then, her mother was stricken with cancer. Layal would often take her by taxi to chemotherapy appointments, both of them ducking in the back seat from gunfire as they rode across town.
After her mother lost her battle with cancer, Layal kept applying to go abroad and was finally accepted into a U.S. State Department Community Solutions exchange program and came to Seattle where she ended up studying renewable energy. “It wasn’t my field, but I realized a small modification to oxidized perovskite catalysts, which I studied in depth for my master’s degree, could lead to many applications, including solar modules.”
After a while, she applied for asylum and eventually received a work permit. She got a job at Costco as assistant cashier, but her scientific mind is always working. “One day I noticed the smell of food waste. I told the manager they could install a biogas digester and reduce food waste and produce energy at the same time.” She is working on a proposal to submit to Costco’s management which could impact their greenhouse gas emissions.
Besides learning about practical applications of physical chemistry in the field of renewable energy, Layal also volunteers. At ReWA she was a voter education volunteer and helped out at her local food bank, because, “Volunteering continues to give me a sense of contribution and belonging in my new home.”
Layal’s goal is to enroll in the University of Washington’s Applied Chemical Science and Technology course. She said she wants to work on projects that produce practical solutions to human problems. “I love working in the lab. That is where I want to be.”
LAYAL: A Passion for Knowledge
TSEGE: Encouraging Youth to Follow Their Dreams
After 30 years at ReWA, youth job readiness training coordinator, Tsege Tsegay, retired in December. In conversation last year she revealed, “When I was young, I wanted to be a pilot.”
Although she never had a chance to follow her own aviation dreams, through her work at ReWA’s youth program she made sure youth from immigrant and refugee families in the Puget Sound could explore career paths that had been closed to her when she was growing up.
“When I was young, I wanted to be a pilot.”
Over the years, Tsege helped youth get internships in emerging technology fields like digital 360-degree filmmaking (virtual reality), or in IT training programs. With the ReWA youth program, students visited college campus, got involved in neighborhood activism and environmental education that took them snow-shoeing in the Cascades or to learn circus arts after school.
Tsege also worked with the parents, most of whom were unfamiliar with the U.S. education system. With Tsege, they learned what role parents’ play in their children’s education: from parent-teacher conferences to internships and applying for financial aid. Over the years, Tsege’s students have gone on to have careers in health care, criminal justice, IT, education and more.
RUMEISA: Clear the Runway, she’s about to take off!
Tsege isn’t the only woman at ReWA with dreams of the “wild blue yonder.” When Rumeisa was growing up in Eritrea, she would watch airplanes cross the blue sky and disappear into the clouds. “We don’t have many airplanes in Eritrea, so I was curious.”
Like many ReWA clients, Rumeisa’s childhood was uprooted by war and she spent many years in a refugee camp in Ethiopia. When she was resettled in the U.S. with her family, she had to adapt to a new system.
“We don’t have many airplanes in Eritrea, so I was curious.”
But five years later, Rumeisa is nearly fluent in English, enrolled in college full time, working two jobs, and attending ReWA’s online citizenship classes twice a week. Her citizenship instructor, Annie Dimitras, says Rumeisa is a natural leader, often helping students in class grasp new concepts.
She added, “She had to adapt to a new school system, in a language she barely knew, without the benefit of a guide. But she never gave up on her dreams.”
And what is Rumeisa’s dream? To learn to fly. She’s studying aeronautics at Green River College and is training to get her private pilot’s license, the first of three licenses required to be a commercial pilot. At Green River College she’s taking classes to learn flight instruments, ground school, aviation history, parts of the airplane, emergency response techniques, and airport management. Rumeisa says she plans to apply for an internship at Alaska Airlines next fall which could help with additional pilot license training.
She recently said, “I just came from flight class where we were practicing a ‘power-on stall’ in a turn.” To do this, she said the pilot must first do ”clearing turns” to make sure no other planes in the area.
“Then,” she explained, “after you get your heading, go to full-power, pitch the nose up 25 degrees, using the rudder to maintain your heading. Then when you hear the stall, pitch the nose towards the ground to build airspeed and then level off.” She said this technique is a basic maneuver for controlling the airplane at takeoff, or any other time when clearing an obstacle.
It sounds pretty hair-raising, but Rumeisa also wants to learn aerobatics and become a flight instructor before she reaches her real goal: commercial airline pilot. “I want to be a captain.”
MAHI: Coding for Her Future
Mahiliet’s story is one of separation, and then reunion. “Mahi,” as her friends call her, was born in a refugee camp in Kenya to parents who had fled their home country, Ethiopia. When 6-year old Mahi became ill, her parents made the difficult decision to send her to live with her grandparents in Ethiopia where she would have access to better health care and educational opportunities. When she was in 5th grade she discovered a love of math and physics. “My uncle loved math and he helped me.” That encouragement was all it took for her to set her sights on a technical career.
Then one day, not long after she graduated from high school, Mahi learned she would reunite with her parents in the U.S. and resettle in Burien. “After 13 years apart, seeing them again was a moment I will never forget.”
In the Puget Sound, Mahi got a job at SeaTac airport and enrolled in Highline College to study electrical engineering before deciding to switch to computer science. “When I took my first coding class, that was it for me. I wanted to learn about games, websites, software development—everything!”
“When I took my first coding class, that was it for me. I wanted to learn how to make games, websites, software development—everything!”
Along the way, she was blessed with a baby daughter, now 18 months. But when the pandemic hit last spring, she lost her airport job. Mahi turned to ReWA, where she was connected to rental and tuition assistance so she could continue her education. Her career coach, Fereshte Taherazer, said of Mahi, “She is one of the most dedicated clients I have had the honor to work with.”
A top student, Mahi plans to finish her Associate of Science degree this summer and then transfer to the University of Washington to finish a bachelor’s degree in computer science. “After I graduate, I hope to work for a technology company. I want to have a professional job with a good salary to support my family.”
Sr. CHARLOTTE: Compassion In Action
2020 may seem to be a year of turmoil, but for former ReWA board member, Sister Charlotte Van Dyke, it reminds her of the racial and social upheaval of the 1960s, as well as the uncertain transition of presidential power in 1945.
During a recent phone call she explained, “When I was in 7th grade, President Roosevelt died (after 12 years as president). I remember asking, ‘Will we have another president like other countries?’”
This past fall, when the peaceful transition of power was challenged, she knew such transitions must not to be taken for granted. “However, I’m thrilled with the results.”
Sister Charlotte said she had always wanted to be a nurse like her mother, but joining a religious order, the Sisters of Providence, was “a bit of a detour,” she admitted. “My first assignment was as a teacher, but my whole life has been about service to the poor.”
After teaching for five years, she went back to nursing school at the University of Portland and then she served as Supervisor of the Emergency Department at St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank, California
Then she went to Washington, D.C., to earn an MBA to work as a health care executive within the Sisters of Providence medical system. While in Washington, D.C., she attended the 1963 March on Washington, highlighted by Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. She recalled how the Mall was filled with thousands who had marched to Washington from Mississippi to protest economic inequality and racial injustice. They erected and occupied a tent city called Resurrection City for several months, raising awareness about poverty and lack of opportunity.
Drawing parallels to the Black Lives Matter protests of last summer, she said, “To me it is exciting. I’m excited by people who take charge of their own future, rather than accept things as they are.”
We heard the scriptures tell us that “The Lord Hears the Cry of the Poor” and we enthusiastically joined the Civil Rights and Peace movements. I specifically remember and the march on Washington, Resurrection City and Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. We were there! We were there, too, traveling in army personnel carriers through the streets of our nation’s capital under martial law during the Martin Luther King riots—to distribute food in the neighborhoods where rioters had burned down the grocery stores. And we were tear-gassed along with the poor people sneaking out after curfew to get that food….” (excerpt from Sr. Charlotte’s Reflections)
“I’m excited by people who take charge of their own future, rather than accept things as they are.”
After twenty years in health care, Sister Charlotte went to law school. “At 55, I was the oldest student—even older than some of the professors!” She opened up an immigration practice in Pioneer Square. Again, Sister Charlotte’s focus was on serving the poor.
“I remember one day, it was pouring rain and I passed a homeless man on the street. I had met him before. He used to be a doctor before he lost it all to alcoholism. So there he was, dripping wet and I was almost to the office, so I gave him my poncho. Some time after that, I saw him again across the street. He pointed at me and shouted for all to hear, ‘She gave me a poncho!’”
Now 87, Sr. Charlotte lives in a retirement home in West Seattle. It’s clear her career has been one of compassion and service for the poor and vulnerable. But she said the memory of one person she met early in her career stays with her.
“As a nursing student, I spent a summer caring for a burn victim named Philip.” She learned that he was from New Orleans and was estranged from his family. Also, he was an alcoholic who, one day, accidentally lit his shirt on fire when lighting a cigarette. Sister Charlotte cared for him eight hours a day while he received multiple skin grafts: she fed him, bathed him, and combed his hair and turned him.
“For society, Philip might be considered ‘disposable,’ but I got to know him well in those three months. Then, one day, to my surprise, he started to sing an aria in the most beautiful baritone voice.“
“See, he had been a professional opera singer and he had the most gorgeous voice. I wondered, ‘Why do we stand in awe at the ruins of a church and not to do so at the ruins of a man?’” She described that experience with Phillip as “life-giving.”
She said, “I grew as a person, taking care of Philip that summer.”
Her dedication to serving the poor led her to ReWA. “The idea of leaving everything familiar and moving to a new country is an overwhelming idea. I am proud to have worked to support ReWA, which acts as a safety net to immigrant and refugee families.”
MONES: An Artist with Design in Mind
Just five years ago, Mones came to the U.S. from Afghanistan with her family. Now, she is an accomplished artist and a sophomore at the University of Washington who dreams of becoming an architect. The road hasn’t always been easy.
She said, “My biggest challenge was leaving my motherland—all of my friends, relatives, and belongings—and then moving to other side of the world to start a new life from zero, in a different culture and language.” She said learning English was challenging but she worked extra hard and forced herself to speak up in class even though it was hard to find the right words to share what was on her mind.
In her junior year of high school, she was introduced to ReWA’s Post-Secondary Success Program, which helps youth from immigrant and refugee families access higher education after high school.
“I’m inspired to become an architect because I find joy in creating and building something worth remembering.”
Also, because Mones was interested in architecture, her ReWA youth program instructors, Lucinda and Reza, the latter, also being from Afghanistan, helped organize a “job shadow” where Mones spent a day with SKL Architects. She must have made an impression because a few weeks later, they asked her to participate in a project to design urban spaces for immigrant and refugee communities.
“Living in Auburn, my family often had trouble accessing groceries or other community resources—so I had a lot of ideas to share,” she said.
Her team won second place for a Design for Inclusive Cities project. At the awards ceremony at the Gates Discovery Center, as part of the Seattle Design Festival, Mones spoke in front of a large crowd.
“I spoke about my experience as a refugee coming to Seattle and my interest in architecture. Speaking in public that day helped build my confidence that I can improve in the future. Overall, that experience taught me that by sharing ideas with others I can improve my society.”
After high school graduation, Mones spent one year at Highline College before transferring to the University of Washington last fall where she is studying architectural design, with plans to get a graduate degree from the UW School of Architecture.
“The exercise of democracy begins as exercise, as walking around, becoming familiar with the streets, comfortable with strangers, able to imagine your own body as powerful and expressive rather than a pawn.”Rebecca Solnit, writer/activist
RAZEIA: The Power of the First Job
Do you remember your first job? Razeia does—she just started it last year. Razeia moved to the U.S. from Afghanistan in January 2019 with her husband and four children. She was 31 years old. Growing up in Afghanistan, she had never worked outside the home.
At ReWA, she started attending English classes. Her teacher Emily said, “When Razeia started, she didn’t know a single word. Now two years later, she is at the top of the class and is confident and outgoing. When I’m teaching classes online from home, if my husband sneezes in the next room, Razeia will call out ’Bless you!’ She’s very funny.”
She is a skilled seamstress, and has made items for friends and family. So last year, when the pandemic broke out, she heard about a job sewing face masks for Outdoor Research. Her teacher Emily helped her fill out a job application and submit it. She is proud to work part-time, sewing all weekend to help support her family. She also has plans to get her driver’s license.
“I am always thinking about learning English.”Razeia, ESL student
NAN: Calling for Democracy in Myanmar
Last month, the world was shocked when the military staged a coup in Myanmar, putting an end to its fledgling democracy. For weeks, crowds of protestors have been filling the streets in the capital, Yangon and other cities across the globe where Burmese diaspora live, including Seattle.
Nan, lives in Tukwila and is an ESL student at ReWA. She arrived to Seattle in September 2019 and is part of a Myanmar community making their voices heard locally. “We want democracy. I went downtown with family and friends because I feel I want to be with my people.”
Seattle is home to thousands of Burmese refugees, many of whom are political refugees or members of ethnic groups such as the Karen and Bamars. These waves of immigrants and refugees started to arrive in the 1970s, and again after the 1988 national uprising. The more recent waves of migration being after 2006 to present day.
Globally, pressure is mounting for the military coup leaders to the respect the November election results. The U.S. has imposed sanctions on the military leaders, and even the Myanmar Ambassador to the United Nations condemned the coup and called its leaders to respect the election results won by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party.
“In societies where men are truly confident of their own worth, women are not merely tolerated but valued.”-Aung San Suu Kyi, National League for Democracy leader
Nan is hopeful that the coordinated civil disobedience demonstrations will force the military coup leaders to listen to the will of the Burmese people.
As Mahatma Ghandi said, “When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it—always.”
FERESHTE: From Corporate Life to Career Coaching
When she was six years old, Fereshte was in a cell. It was during the Iran-Iraq war and her father fled their home with her and her brother in tow. After crossing the border, they were imprisoned for a year and a half. Finally, they were released and eventually made their way to the U.S. where she reunited with her mother and other siblings. Together at last, they settled into a new life in Seattle.
After high school, Fereshte studied psychology and business at the University of Washington where she also discovered a love of theater, writing and producing for the Tribe Project for Multi-Cultural Arts.
“I can see now that my life’s journey has prepared me to do this work.”
Fereshte went on to a career in IT marketing for large corporations and raised a family. “After 12 years in the corporate world, I decided to make a change. I came to ReWA because I wanted to give back and help people who came to the U.S. as refugees like I did. It is my calling.”
Fereshte is a career coach and business development coordinator for ReWA’s Day 1 program which provides housing and tuition assistance to immigrants and refugees who need help to re-certify for careers in the U.S. She said, “This job makes me feel like I’m answering my life’s calling. I can see now that my life’s journey has prepared me to do this work.”
Images from past International Women’s Day Celebrations at ReWA.