A Story of Resilience and Refugee Empowerment

August 8, 2023

Hayat Zahra, originally from Pakistan, left her home in 2013 and traveled through multiple countries including Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Thailand and Bangladesh before finally finding asylum in the United States in 2016. Her inspiring story sheds light on the challenges faced by refugees and the profound impact they can have on their new communities.

Leaving her home country in 2013 with her brothers, Hayat was forced to leave her mother and youngest brother behind temporarily in search of better life and security. However, in 2019, her family was joyfully reunited when her mother and youngest brother were able to join them in Virginia.

Hayat vividly recalls her first encounter with the dedicated employees of Church World Service upon their arrival in the United States. CWS provided invaluable support and guidance to Hayat and her family, assisting them in navigating various aspects of their new lives, such as finding employment, enrolling in schools, and adapting to their unfamiliar surroundings.

During her time in the United States, Hayat noticed a lack of understanding among many Americans about the plight of refugees. She believes that it would be transformative if every American had the opportunity to meet a refugee and ask three simple yet profound questions: Why did they leave their home country? How did they manage to escape? What hardships did they encounter along the way?  Hayat believes that such conversations would foster empathy, challenge stereotypes, and ultimately change perspectives.

Hayat acknowledges that the journey to truly being accepted as an American is an ongoing process. “Overcoming the label of being an ‘outsider’ requires time, understanding, and acceptance from the broader society,” she told us. Nevertheless, Hayat remains resilient and determined to contribute to her new home.

Currently, Hayat works as Reception and Placement case manager at CWS Harrisonburg, where she is an educator for refugees, playing a pivotal role in helping them navigate their new lives. She derives immense satisfaction from explaining the intricacies of their new environment to her clients, many of whom are unfamiliar with the customs, practices, and opportunities available to them. Working closely with her clients for a period of ninety days, Hayat guides them through the challenges they face and empowers them to embrace their new lives.

Hayat’s journey within the field of refugee support has been a remarkable one. Starting as a volunteer, she quickly rose to become an associate case manager, and has recently been promoted to a full-time caseworker at CWS Harrisonburg, Virginia. Her dedication and passion for serving others have driven her to excel in her role, supporting individuals from diverse backgrounds and circumstances.

The clients Hayat serves come from various cultural backgrounds, each with their unique traditions, attire, and food preferences. Interacting with families from Africa has particularly broadened her understanding and appreciation for the rich diversity that exists within the refugee community. Hayat expresses her gratitude for being the person who gets to meet and assist these remarkable individuals, each with their own compelling story.

She begins each day by checking her emails and messages, ensuring she stays up to date with any new developments or requests. Her work phone remains a constant companion, enabling her to respond to her clients’ needs. Spending a significant portion of her day communicating with clients, Hayat sends reminders about their appointments, provides guidance, and offers a listening ear to their concerns.

At the end of a productive workday, Hayat takes a moment to reflect on her accomplishments and ensure that she has attended to all the necessary tasks. Prioritizing the needs of her clients above all else, she finds fulfillment in making a positive impact on their lives and helping them build a better future.