October 11, 2018


During 2018 Festival of Friendship, AVSI-USA discussed moving from how we face immigration in the abstract to how we face immigrants – telling real stories of real people


Photos by Requiem Images 2018

Migrants as actual people, not statistics, was the topic of a panel discussion in Pittsburgh that sought to draw attention to the stories of individuals – with their hopes and challenges – in the current global migration crisis. Barbara Gagliotti of AVSI-USA moderated the discussion at the annual Festival of Friendship which featured Ilaria Schnyder, research professor at the University of Notre Dame, Marie L’Hermine, Partnership Development Officer at AVSI-USA and Wasi Mohamed, Executive Director of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh. The discussion offered a human starting point by shifting the question from how we face immigration in the abstract to how we face immigrants – telling real stories of real people in context.

Marie L’Hermine detailed AVSI’s work with refugees and displaced peoples in Africa. Because of the devastating crisis in Syria, she noted, most of the world’s attention has been focused on refugees making the dangerous Mediterranean crossing. Yet, according to the United Nations, developing countries, mostly in Africa, are taking in a disproportionate number of refugees — currently 80% of the world’s refugee population. Marie illustrated AVSI’s approach, which starts from looking at people as inherently valuable rather than inherently problematic, by sharing a video of Teddy Bongomi.  Teddy was victim of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda and was subsequently forced to leave her village. Once a beneficiary of AVSI programs, she is now a social worker for vulnerable women in Kampala and in the video she recounts her own journey to self-awareness.

​Marie also told the story of Lillian, a young South Sudanese refugee who met AVSI workers in northern Uganda and was helped to start a new life as a small farmer to sustain herself and her children. 

Photos by Requiem Images 2018

Prof. Ilaria Schnyder presented stories from her current research, which entails documenting the efforts of the Italian Episcopal Conference to guarantee safe passage and resettle Christian and Muslim refugees from Eritrea, South Sudan and Somalia in various Dioceses of Italy. In a research project that will last 5 years, Schnyder said, “The role of accompaniment, the reality of encounter between refugees and their Catholic hosts, and the general cultural context, is of special interest to us.” She recounted personal stories and showed moving photographs of several families she has personally accompanied on the journey from refugee camps in Ethiopia to a new life in Europe. 

Closer to home, Wasi Mohammed recounted his experience of growing up as a child of immigrants in Pennsylvania. A practicing Muslim, he who was honored in 2017 by Pittsburgh Magazine’s 40 Under 40 as one of the young protagonists making the city a better place to live. In his role as Executive Director of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, he works to dispel negative images of Muslims in America and to provide platforms for positive engagement. He warned of the dangers of anti-Islamic tropes currently touted in political discourse and said the best way to dispel fear is to meet other people. Toward that end, the Islamic Center sponsors community potluck dinners that bring Muslims and non-Muslims together. Indeed, participants of the Festival of Friendship were treated to a tasty Bengali meal sponsored Saturday night by the Center.

The weekend’s events also featured a related exhibit Out of Many: Stories of Migration:  A photographic project that explores the immigrant experience in Pittsburgh. You can view some of the stunning photos and faces of immigrants from award-winning photographers, including National Geographic photojournalist, Lynn Johnson, in a recent New York Times article and on the project’s website. The Festival of Friendship, an annual 3-day cultural festival offering absorbing discussions, artistic performances, and fascinating exhibits, is sponsored by The Revolution of Tenderness.

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