Five Questions for a First-Time Advocate

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Andrew Russell, community engagement manager for ILJ affiliate Just Neighbors—serving Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C.—holds both a bachelor’s degree in business and a Master of Divinity from Redeemer Seminary in Dallas, Texas. Earlier this month, he joined Refugee Council USA (RC USA) and partner organizations for an Advocacy Day in Washington, D.C.

It was his first time lobbying on Capitol Hill, so we asked him to share his perspective on the experience.

You came to the U.S. from the Bahamas when you were 11 years old. How do you think your own immigrant story shapes your role at Just Neighbors?

Have you heard of a “third culture kid?” That was me. I was Black, but not Black American, so I was not accepted in the African American community.  And then I wasn’t fully accepted into the white community, either. The trauma of leaving the Bahamas was so great, yet every time I would go home to visit, I was no longer fully Bahamian.  And when I came back to the States, I was not fully American.

So I know what it is to live between two worlds. I understand what it means to be from another country and to have challenges living in America. When I speak with our immigrant clients, they know they are talking to a friend. It’s like a veteran speaking to another veteran.

This was your first time advocating on Capitol Hill. What did you think?   

Honestly, as an immigrant and citizen of this country, it was an honor and a privilege to step into the halls where decisions are made that affect the entire world and be able to have a voice.

You definitely feel like you are part of the process, that you are speaking to power. It really struck me to see the crowds of people from around the country—from around the world—in one place. I felt like I was part of a community of change. Whatever is going on in the world, whatever are the hot-button issues, you’re right there. You’re in the mix.

What is the memory that will stay with you the longest?   

To be honest with you, the most impactful thing was hearing the stories from other immigrants who are seeking asylum. There was a gentleman from Syria who had family members and friends killed in prison, He waited six years to receive his asylum approval, due to the backlog.

I listened to a young Muslim woman from Nigeria who experienced—I don’t know if you can write this down—so I would just say extreme sexual trauma from Boko Haram. And then she talked about being retraumatized at the U.S. border.

I’ve always been struck by the passage in Scripture which tells us we should consider others more highly than ourselves [Philippians 2:3-5].  What it means to me is that if someone has a need and I consider that need, I actually take on that need as if it were mine, I take on that issue as if it were my issue. I take on that fight as if it were my fight.

When I was advocating on the Hill, I was learning about some of these issues. I’m not an expert, but I can tell you that when I was standing shoulder-to-shoulder with my Syrian brother and my Nigerian Muslim sister, they became my issues, too.

What were your takeaway lessons?

One of the things the young Muslim lady asked Senator Ben Cardin’s (D-MD) legislative aide was “How can we make our voices louder?”

And the aide said, “We are on the same side.  We want to help. What you need to do is tell your story to the other side. The side that doesn’t have the same views on immigration as we do.”

How do we get to that other side?

Well, there was a roundtable discussion about the Palestinian crisis that day. Two Palestinian ladies were talking about their families being killed, talking about the horror of an entire generation being wiped out. And there was an American Jewish lady present in the room. They had a conversation together—to listen, to cry, to share their pain, but also to understand one another.

I think a lot of these conflicts—in terms of geopolitics, in our country, and in the world—it’s really about sitting across from the person you fiercely disagree with and having an honest conversation. Not to talk about the person, but to talk with them. And then to realize that there’s some part of their story that resonates with yours.

In politics, there are these harmful political narratives about immigrants, the marginalized, and the displaced. And we see that human dignity, respect, and the human being you can name and know, becomes lost in these narratives.

At Just Neighbors, we encourage people to become involved, stay engaged, and volunteer.  Volunteer to come and see these stories for yourself.

*Photo: Andrew (far left), ILJ Network’s Culture & Outreach Manager  Rev. Carlos Reyes Rodríguez (far right), and fellow advocates, prepare to meet with congressional staff. 

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