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Starting a nonprofit in refugee storytelling

joven hablando con una consejera
Foto: iStock/Martine Doucet

I like to think of myself as a 1.1 generation immigrant.

I officially immigrated to the USA in my mid-20s. Now I am working towards starting a nonprofit.

My very first move to the country dates back to the summer of 1995, before I immigrated. I lived in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with my family for one year until the summer of 1996. My time in the American South at such a young age completely altered the way I saw the world.

It also taught me many lessons on being a stranger in a new world. At school, I was the only Asian person around. Most of the students were black while most of the teachers were white. For the first time in my life, I realized that the color of my skin and my unusual cultural and language background made me a person who didn’t belong to the community. I was lonely, weak, and a stranger.

The same feeling was called back years later when I met North Korean refugees in Britain in 2010. After all, just like me back in Baton Rouge, they were Koreans that belonged to nowhere in Europe’s largest Koreatown. Living with several of the North Korean refugees for a month shed much light on many stories of refugees that are rarely shared with the rest of the world.

Since then, I gradually developed my interests in storytelling and refugees.

In 2018, I directed a project that collected and shared the oral histories of refugees in Jacksonville, Florida.

Oral histories are the stories that are verbally told by an individual or a group of people whose life experience is a part of the larger history. Through the project, I focused on understanding how refugees’ experience of forced migration shapes their experience of resettlement in the American South. I collected and shared the stories of refugees who had come to Jacksonville from countries like Ethiopia, Gambia, Iraq, Cuba, Nepal, Bhutan, Myanmar, Ukraine, Cuba, and the like, with the public through an event on the campus of the University of Florida.

Throughout the project which lasted about a year, I realized a high level of interest and passion among the public in listening to refugees’ journeys to learn more about them.

Nowadays, I am working towards starting my own nonprofit named Refugees’ Stories. The goal of the nonprofit is to collect more stories of refugees around the world. I first purchased a URL and developed a website through Google in 2018. I turned to free logo making websites available online, picked out a design, and paid a small amount to download a higher resolution version of the logo for a nonprofit.

Since then, I have been finding nonprofits that I could partner with to approach refugee communities and set up a Board of Directors for my nonprofit. These two are the key areas that require the most work when starting your own nonprofit and the rest of the procedure is heavily paperwork.

My biggest challenge in starting a nonprofit has been identifying the right people who are both a good fit and willing to be a member of the Board. At times, being an immigrant who does not have native roots in the U.S. made it harder to find the right people. Being a graduate student made it even more difficult as what I proposed to do was sometimes considered as part-time and experimental rather than fully committed and professional.

For me, “referrals” from the people within my existing network has been helpful in overcoming these challenges. I have been lucky to be surrounded by many professors and community organizers from immigrant and refugee communities who took an interest in my vision and referred me to some of the most influential figures and organizations in my field. Nonetheless, to actually have people join the Board of Directors is a long-term process that requires building a strong agreement and friendship among the person, my organization, and me as the founder.   

What comes next, once you have your mission and vision statements and Board of Directors set up, is the actual paperwork.

Some founders hire a lawyer or a company that specializes in the registration to take care of the work, but it could easily cost you $1,000 or more. I had received quotes from several companies early in the process and I knew that I could not afford to have someone else do the work. Instead, I have been using a lot of my time researching the process and figuring out the specifics of registration. Luckily, immigrant and refugee communities tend to have many people who could provide guidance on the process: pastors who established their own church, community leaders who started a community organization, and small business owners.

In today’s globalizing world, understanding the journeys of newcomers is the crucial stepping stone to building a diverse and inclusive society. Refugees are often survivors of a traumatic experience and could easily feel unwelcome in the presence of incorrect information on refugees that travels the media.

Starting a nonprofit in storytelling not only helps the readers and listeners gain better knowledge about refugees, but also helps refugees by giving them a growing sense of engagement in the new world.

Having been a “stranger” myself, I have a great passion and high hopes for Refugees’ Stories, and I sincerely hope that my work could bring millions of refugees around the world closer to finding a new home in the new country.

Seyeon Hwang is currently a doctoral student in Urban & Regional Planning at the University of Florida.

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