From Survivor to Advocate

  • Descartes presents at the UN Refugee Youth Council.
Since arriving in the United States in July 2014, Descartes has worked to translate his experiences as a survivor of torture into opportunities to advocate for refugee communities.

When you first meet Descartes, it is easy to note how thoughtful and well versed the 19-year old is in sharing his lived experiences, both positive and negative. On April 12, NSC's Young Friends had the opportunity to hear from Descartes as part of the Global Journeys series.  At just 19 years old, Descartes has collaborated with young refugee leaders around the world, from New York City to Washington D.C., and in a few months he will also share his story, obstacles, and his vision for youth refugee advocacy in Geneva, Switzerland.

Since arriving in the United States in July 2014, Descartes has worked to translate his experiences as a survivor of torture into opportunities to advocate for refugee communities. He immediately enrolled in high school, bringing with him his numerous accomplishments while in Hinche, Haiti, where he consistently scored in the highest percentile in statewide tests. For Descartes coming to the US meant not only to reclaiming his identity, while also building relationships with those immigrant and refugee youth who feel invisible in society. As a student, Descartes helped advocate for greater funding for ESL classes, organizing with other students for increased access and even speaking in front of Philadelphia City Council. Upon graduating form high school, he increased the scope of his efforts, the same mission at the heart of his work: To help achieve education accessibility for young immigrants and their families. 

His efforts following his graduation have included interpersonal and political advocacy. Descartes has consulted with UN officials in New York and Washington D.C., and will soon share his story again in Geneva. But he has not lost sight of his community here in Philadelphia. Between taking classes at the Community College of Philadelphia and a part-time job at a restaurant, Descartes has also been working with the School District of Philadelphia to support refugee families at various stages in their resettlement. Just as he learned to familiarize himself with the systems he needed to navigate to make his stories heard, Descartes believes in creating opportunities for refugee youth and their families to develop fluency in these same systems, gradually developing their own self-sufficiency.

As he shared his story with NSC's Young Friends, Descartes took time to questions from the young professionals gathered to listen to him. Any initial nervousness he felt while preparing for the event gave way seamlessly to ease with which he interacted with the attendees. And it is not difficult to imagine a future with bigger venues and audiences, where he can continue to translate his experiences into his larger vision for refugee advocacy.

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