World Refugee Day: Standing with refugee leaders who are sparking change

On World Refugee Day, held every year on June 20, we honor the strength, courage, and perseverance of refugees around the globe.

This year, World Refugee Day focuses on solidarity with refugees, for a world where refugees are welcomed. Solidarity means keeping our doors open, celebrating refugees’ strengths and achievements, and reflecting on the challenges they face.

Today, we are spotlighting refugee leaders who are designing creative ways to build community in the United States through the Sparking Change program. Their innovative projects are building bridges between refugees and their new communities.

Last December, USA for UNHCR, Refugee Congress and Welcoming America selected 10 refugee leaders from Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Texas as the inaugural cohort for Sparking Change, a grant program that invests in individuals who have been forcibly displaced and are now leading community-based solutions in the U.S.

In addition to financial support (up to $12,500), USA for UNHCR partnered with Welcoming America to bring together the Sparking Change grantees at the 2024 Welcoming Interactive in Dallas, Texas, a conference that highlights best practices of immigrant inclusion and community support.

Nicole Smith, who spearheads the Sparking Change program at USA for UNHCR, reflected on the inaugural convening of the grantees.

“After reading their applications, I knew that we had an outstanding group of refugee leaders, but I was blown away by their ability to create community in such a short period. During one of the workshop sessions where we were discussing narrative around refugees, there was a really powerful moment where the Advisory Council members were able to share their lived experience as community leaders to offer advice to the emerging Sparking Change leaders. This moment reiterated the point that these leaders know what to do, and they simply need someone to support them.”

Sparking Change Advisory Council Member, Shamaril Amiri (left), and Sparking Change grantees Faridar Sirazulsalam (middle) and Dauda Sesay (right).

As part of supporting new refugee leaders, the Sparking Change grantees have support from a group of Refugee Congress delegates known as the Sparking Change Advisory Council. These four individuals are currently leading in their respective communities and serve as a resource for the inaugural cohort in project execution.

Emma Yaaka, from Chicago, Illinois is on the Advisory Council and shared his thoughts:
“I’m very excited. And I told them, you know what — whatever you are going to do, it will determine how we can look at this in your future because this should be our stepping stone to open more opportunities for more refugees who are doing similar work.”

At the workshop, the grantees also practiced how to pitch their projects to garner additional support. Many of the Sparking Change grantees then utilized these skills for further networking at the Welcoming Interactive over the next two days.

Rachel Perić, executive director of Welcoming America, said of the program, “We are deeply inspired by the Sparking Change awardees, and their leadership across Louisiana, Texas, and Oklahoma to build communities where all of us belong and thrive. At a time when more people around the world are being forcibly displaced, we hope that more organizations will join with us in valuing and investing in leaders with this background to be at the forefront of solutions that build a more inclusive and welcoming society for all.”

Take action in solidarity with refugees:

This blog was adapted from an article originally published by USA for UNHCR on