In recent months, there have been a lot of pictures, articles, and statements in the news about refugees in far-flung regions of the world. There have been stories of families crossing the Mediterranean to Europe, or living for years in refugee camps. But few Texans are aware that refugees are not all so far away; right here in Austin, there are refugees living and working among us as neighbors and friends. Now in these last few hours before Amplify Austin 2016, one Austinite’s story of how he came to Texas as a refugee and made this city his home stands out among the rest.
Qahtan Mustafa was born and raised in Baghdad, Iraq. For most of his life there, Iraq was in a state of scarcity and war. He recalls how people used to use dates (which he now hates) to sweeten candy and other foods because there was never any sugar. He remembers the injustice of the Iraqi government hoarding food and other humanitarian aid given by other nations rather than distributing it to the people. When he grew up, he got a Bachelor’s degree from Baghdad University in Agriculture--not because he wanted to, but because that was what he was assigned to study. Nevertheless, in 2003 Qahtan decided to use his ability to speak English to become an interpreter and cultural advisor for the U.S. Armed Forces in Iraq. Within a year, he began to realize the danger in holding this position. Other interpreters were going missing or turning up dead. For the next five years, Qahtan left his home every morning not knowing if he would make it back alive that night. He moved his wife and son to different houses around Baghdad frequently and took different routes to work each day. Even if he had left his job as an interpreter, he would always be targeted as a “traitor” by militant and anti-U.S. groups in Iraq. Finally, in 2009, Qahtan, his wife, and their son left their lifelong home for good and came to the United States as refugees.
That very same year, Qahtan was hired as an interpreter and then as a Pre-Arrival Case Manager at Refugee Services of Texas (RST). Qahtan recalls contemplating continuing work for the U.S. military here in Texas, but decided to use his English and Arabic language skills and his personal experience with the refugee resettlement process to help others escaping violence and fear in their home countries. His hard work and dedication paid off in 2013, when he was promoted to supervisor of the Resettlement Program at RST Austin. Just last year he took on another leadership role as Community Integration Supervisor and now oversees multiple programs and teams of staff. Aside from building a career at RST, Qahtan has used his past seven years in Austin to build a life in central Texas, such as visiting the Schlitterbahn in New Braunfels with his family and joining a local soccer league. Finally in 2014, he and his wife swore their oaths and became U.S. citizens at the Bob Bullock Texas History Museum on World Refugee Day. Today, Qahtan is now studying again to obtain a Bachelor’s degree in Business through Peloton University while continuing to help other refugees experiencing the same difficult transition he and his family went through.
Austin is home to thousands of refugees like Qahtan. Their stories may vary, but they all share the dream of building safe, happy, and successful lives in Texas free from persecution and turmoil. That is why Refugee Services of Texas is raising the bar for this year’s Amplify Austin, and why former refugees like Qahtan are stepping up as individual fundraisers. Follow the link below to visit Qahtan’s fundraiser page and support his goal to raise money for refugees in Austin.