The Iraqi Refugee Bringing Florida Together Through Storytelling

Basma Alawee is the Co-founder and Executive Director of the non-profit, WeaveTales. She was elected as the Florida delegate for the UNHCR Refugee Congress and is a board member of USAHello. She is also the State Refugee Organizer with the Florida Immigrant Coalition. As an advocate for refugees and storytelling, she recalls her life story and how important it is to stand for those who need to have their voice heard.

Born in Iraq, Basma was raised by “a really strong, tight family,” with both parents in the teaching profession. She credits her position as the middle child among two brothers and two sisters for her development of diplomatic communication skills. “It’s hard for me to get offended because I prefer to listen to other perspectives,” she says. Basma had a natural curiosity toward other cultures and would often spend time in her father’s library at home, reading about religion. She also remembers her father instilling in her an appreciation for the struggles of other people. “There was no mercy around laughing at others,” she recalls.

After attending college, Basma graduated with an engineering degree. She remembers spending several hours in traffic to get to class due to checkpoints and bombings on the road. Despite the chaos around her, she married her husband and was pregnant with her first child by the time she graduated.

Just as things seemed to settle down, her family received a rude awakening in the middle of the night. “We were sleeping one night and we started seeing lights [shining] on our home. Then a group of people started pushing on the doors to come in,” she remembers. They were American soldiers. Once the doors were busted open, her husband and father found themselves lit up with green lasers in the dark. The soldiers ordered her husband and father on the floor and stepped on her brother’s head in a show of force. “This is shame[ful] for a man,” she explains. Thinking quickly, her mother realized the soldiers must have mistaken them for another family, so she ran to show them their IDs.

The soldiers searched their home and found nothing. They had received a tip that a man with Basma’s father’s same name was a terrorist. They wrongly tracked the man to their home. “How many other families were attacked like that?” Basma wonders. After the traumatic incident, Basma’s husband decided to aid U.S. troops in interpretation efforts in order to help them become more culturally aware, and to never make that mistake again.

If we stayed any longer, we may have lost our lives.

But other Iraqis were skeptical of her husband’s decision. Basma recalls multiple bombings that occurred nearby her husband’s place of work and around her neighborhood. Despite these incidents, it wasn’t until one night on her rooftop that Basma decided she had to leave the country. Bullets skimmed the top of her head, narrowly missing her and her family. “If we stayed any longer, we may have lost our lives,” she says. Shortly thereafter, Basma and her family came to the U.S. as refugees to start their new new life together.

She recalls the hardships of being a newly arrived refugee and struggling to find employment. “When we came over, we were lost,” she admits. But it wasn’t long until Basma found employment as a teacher and she used this platform to advocate for refugee issues.

Basma Alawee teaches Floridians about the plight of refugees.

I wanted to change the narrative and make people understand the plight of refugees.

“I wanted to change the narrative and make people understand the plight of refugees,” she says. In 2019, Basma took her passion a step further and landed the position of Florida Refugee Organizer for the Florida Immigrant Coalition, a position she says was novel in the state.

“[Our mission was answering the question of] how could we engage refugees, mobilize them, and understand and add refugees to the immigrant movement?” she says. She credits the Florida Immigrant Coalition’s work for growing a large refugee movement in Florida. “We have held the very first Refugee Day at the capital in Florida,” she says excitedly. The event included over 100 refugees and allies educating the public about the plight of refugees in the U.S. The impetus of storytelling, she says, is to take action, not just to donate money to different causes.

Steering away from the political nature of refugee issues in the U.S., Basma co-founded Weave Tales in 2019 with Seyeon Hwang in order to tell refugee stories by bringing “the humanitarian element” to their struggles. “I felt like there was no organization that focused on the stories of refugees [but] it’s the main tool we can use to advocate for different things,” Basma says.

WeaveTales focuses on the broad issue of “forced migration,” including both refugees and immigrants in order to promote their stories through different platforms. Their newest program entitled New American Speaker Program, advocates for public speaking and storytelling to encourage new Americans and immigrants to tell their stories to the public. The approach aims to help immigrants and Americans who have never known a refugee before. “We want people to understand the real narrative, not just what they’re told,” she says.

During the COVID-19 era, Basma and her team are getting creative to bring refugee stories to the public in new ways. Currently, they are launching a cohort to share refugee stories online.

To learn more about Basma’s work, please visit www.weavetales.org.

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