When Flora Mejzinolli arrived in the U.S. as a 12-year-old refugee from Kosovo, she didn’t know that nearly 20 years later she would devote her work life to helping other refugees.

 

Today, Mejzinolli, 30, is getting involved with grass-roots organizing devoted to educating her community about they can do about the Syrian refugee crisis. A canvasser for Amnesty International by day, Mejzinollihas partnering with a local non-profit, Fort Greene Peace, to hold an upcoming community forum on how locals can help refugees.

 

“I haven’t seen us be very proactive and very welcoming,” said Mejzinolli. “I think we could do a lot more and I don’t think we’ve taken sufficient refugees.”

 

Sitting on the deck of her Brooklyn apartment on a sunny Sunday afternoon, Mejzinolli wears a floral kaftan while she waits for friends to arrive to celebrate her birthday. She says she feels compassion for refugees and wants to help people understand what it means to be one.

 

”It is not a choice that you’re given,” she stated bluntly. “Your choice is to flee for your life. So do we want to leave home? Nobody wants to leave home. I didn’t want to leave home,” she said. “A refugee is running away from bombs.”

 

Hanging from a pillar in the middle of her kitchen is an illustrated poster of a Syrian man holding a child with “Refugees Welcome Here” emblazoned across the image. Mejzinolli got the poster from a local community organization called Fort Greene Peace.

 

Fort Greene Peace was founded in 2006 as an offshoot of Brooklyn Peace, to protest the Iraq War. Sitting in a cream vinyl booth in a diner in Fort Greene, Ed Goldman, a retired high school teacher, and founder of Fort Greene Peace, sat with a fellow organizer as they spoke about the evolution of the organization.

( Mejzinolli at her apartment in Brooklyn.)

Over the years, according to Goldman, the organization has taken on new issues beyond its original mandate of protesting the 2003 Iraq War, including police violence and US military intervention in the Middle East. Now, they group has taken on the Syrian refugee crisis.

 

The first step for the organization was creating a poster campaign — the poster hanging in Mejzinolli’s kitchen. Fort Green Peace worked with an artist to design the poster and then started going around to local businesses asking them if they could hang it in store windows.

 

The humanitarian crisis in Syria began in 2011 following anti-government protests that spread across the Middle East as part of the Arab Spring. Since then, Syria  has descended into a civil war that has displaced nearly 9 million people internally, and forced 4.8 million people to flee the country and become refugees, according to UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency.

 

Most Syrian refugees have made their way to neighboring Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. But over a million have made asylum applications in Europe, where Serbia and Kosovo are second only to Germany in the number of Syrian asylum applications they’ve received, according to UNHCR data.

 

As Europe feels the strain of a rapid influx of Syrians amidst rising anti-immigrant sentiment, there is mounting international pressure on the U.S. government to accept more refugees.

 

Each year the President determines how many refugees the US should accept. This past September, President Obama increased the number the cap of 85,000 in 2016, to a cap of 110,000 in 2017.

 


(Data source: The Refugee Processing Center, operated by the Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration.)

 

Interested in local and international social justice issues, Goldman says taking on the refugee crisis was a natural fit for the organization. “The battle and discussion about whether to let in refugees at all and how many, especially from Syria,” he said, “was something that the group as a whole started to be concerned with.”

 

Mejzinolli’s own interest in organizations that focus on international social justice issues originated with Amnesty International when she was a child. She says that at the time there were no canvassers on the streets, but there were researchers who were documenting issues such as the number of prisoners of conscience, rape victims and penal code violations.

 

“I remember when the Slovenian government at the time was calling us terrorists,” she said. “And we were just trying to defend our lives.”

 

She recalls Amnesty International was quoted in the press for saying people weren’t terrorists; they were just trying to survive.

 

Mejzinolli now keeps a copy of the report and says she saw it again when she started at Amnesty. “And that’s the first thing I read, and I was like oh, this is the report that kind of saved us,” she recalled.

 

Through her own work as a canvasser Mejzinolli says she welcomes the chance to answer people’s questions about what a refugee is and why it’s important to welcome them

 

 

Mejzinolli was one of just over 14,000 refugees who arrived from Kosovo in 1999 when the total number of refugees the U.S. accepted from around the world was 91,000. She came to the US, first living in Yonkers and then the Bronx, with her 24 year old brother and two sisters. Her parents stayed behind in Kosovo, afraid that if they left they might never get to return home.

 

Through her own work as a canvasser, Mejzinolli says she welcomes the chance to answer people’s questions about what a refugee is and why it’s important to welcome them. Mejzinollo has found that  people are often skeptical of refugees and even taken aback when they find out she’s one herself. But that she welcomes to chance to tell her story and explain that she’s advocating for a safe and legal passageway.  

 

“Sometimes I wear a shirt that says I was a war refugee and people come and ask me what is the screening process?  What does that mean?  Where is it?” she said. “And that’s really why I am intentionally out there – to raise awareness about what does it mean to be a refugee.”

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