Top 6 Insights We Learned About Refugees From Our Winners

By Cara Politi
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“No one leaves their home unless they have to.” 

This was the powerful response of Estefania Rebellon, Elevate Prize GET LOUD winner, CNN Hero, Co-Founder & CEO of Yes We Can World Foundation—and refugee herself—when asked what her message to the world would be about refugees. 

During our annual Make Good Famous Summit, we sat down with Estefania and two Elevate Prize winners,  Atif Javed, Executive Director of Tarjimly, and Zarlasht Halaimzai, Founder of Amna, to better understand their experience as proximate leaders and answer some of the internet’s most frequently asked questions around the refugee crisis. Their personal stories are powerful, while their insights provide much-needed clarity on the refugee experience. 

Watch the full video that offers more insight into Estefania’s and other Elevate Prize winners work, and get ready to be inspired!


Here are the top things we learned:

  • World Refugee Day: A day of awareness AND celebration: World Refugee Day, held of June 20th every year, is a day of raising awareness and driving action for the growing refugee crisis — which is now its 12th consecutive year of growth, with almost 120 million displaced people worldwide, as per the UN — but it is equally a day to  celebrate the strength and resilience of refugees and displaced people. As Estefania noted, “My dad received death threats… And it got to the point that we had to go into hiding. And within two weeks, my parents, who were both lawyers, had their own business, were in their 40’s, had three children… [we] had to go because you have no other choice.”
      • The importance of upholding the 1951 Refugee Convention. Also known as the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the 1951 Refugee Convention is the primary international treaty that protects refugees. This convention, along with its 1967 Protocol, defines who qualifies as a refugee, their rights, and the legal obligations of states to protect them. Key principles include non-refoulement, which prohibits returning refugees to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom, and the right to seek asylum. It’s clear: refugees fleeing war and persecution have a right to seek safety and protection. As Zarlasht put it: this convention is vital for ensuring the safety and dignity of those forced to flee their homes due to persecution, conflict, or violence. “When we left our home [in Afghanistan], the only thing we had to go by was the fact that there is a convention that protects refugees… it’s important to remind everybody that a great deal of suffering had resulted [after World War II] and a convention that protects people who are fleeing war, persecution [exists].” 
      • Refugees are people. No different than anyone else. “They’re just people like you and me with dreams, aspirations, and goals for themselves. And they were just dealt a bad hand—[and] are looking for safety, security, and health for them and their families.” noted Atif.
      • The misconception of the ‘perfect’ refugee. There can be a harmful notion or rhetoric that to deserve help, refugees must be heroes. In reality, they are diverse individuals who deserve protection and support simply because they are human beings and are fleeing war or persecution. “They occupy the full spectrum of humanity, just as we all do,”  Zarlasht asserted.
      • Refugees bring many valuable contributions. When welcomed, refugees bring significant skills, talent, and resilience to their new communities—even significantly contributing to the economies of host countries. Studies show that refugees often start businesses, create jobs, and bring diverse skills that benefit local economies. Despite the trauma they have endured, refugee communities also possess deep wisdom and compassion. “It takes so much love and compassion for somebody to come to a place to experience that kind of violence, to choose safety and nonviolence,” Zarlasht reflected.
      • Welcoming refugees is everything.  Engaging with refugees directly, involving them in decision-making processes, and acknowledging their full spectrum of experiences can lead to more inclusive and supportive communities and changing perspectives. “We [refugees] can speak for ourselves… it’s inviting refugees or people who have been through that to tell our story, to design what we need, to be involved in the services that are created for refugees,” Zarlasht urged. “When my family was fleeing, it was people connecting to our humanity that carried us through.” She stressed that simple acts like inviting newcomers to join school activities or supporting them in community settings can make a world of difference.

      How can we help?

      • Watch and share this full conversation from Atif, Estefania, and Zarlasht.
      • Welcome refugees – and invite them to conversations. Big or small, any action of welcome makes a difference and helps bring our communities together. 
      • Advocate for policy changes, which is crucial to addressing the root causes of displacement.
      • Use your resources. Donate to Amna, Yes We Can World Foundation, Tarjimly, or another organization working in your community.
      • Do you speak a second (or third or fourth!) language? Volunteer your skills and time as a translator for Tarjimly.
      • With Pride Month in mind, remember that many LGBTQ+ people have no choice but to seek refuge to escape criminalization, persecution, and violence simply for being who they are. Learn more and pledge your support.