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  • Tennessee students’ nonprofit brings refugees’ stories to the world.
    30 Jul , 2018
































    Tennessee students’ nonprofit brings refugees’ stories to the world.


    John D. Cobb understands what it’s like to have to adapt.

    The 17-year-old has been deaf since birth, though his hearing loss wasn’t diagnosed until he was a toddler. He uses hearing aids.

    So when the debate team he co-founded at his school, Clayton-Bradley Academy in Maryville, took on the topic of refugees, John D. found himself looking beyond the statistics and numbers that make up a logical debate position.

    That was somewhat novel for John D., the son of a public policy analyst and a physicist, who was nicknamed by his grandfather after the billionaire Rockefeller and thrives on facts and figures. The refugees’ plight moved him from clinical research into wondering about individual stories.

    So, with his best friend from childhood, L&N STEM Academy junior Alexander YarKhan, he decided to tell them.

    How refugees ‘are people just like me’
    “The story’s not, ‘There’s a refugee crisis, and here’s how many refugees there are, and 5 million people have fled Syria,'” John D. said. Instead, the story is how refugees are people “just like me, with favorite books, foods and bedtime stories, who honor their parents and work hard to survive.”

    Alexander and John D. bonded in second grade, “the deaf kid and the failure-to-thrive kid who’s about this wide,” the son of first-generation American parents from Greece and Pakistan, John D. said.

    Together, they’ve founded RefugeeLikeMe, already registered as a nonprofit in Tennessee and in the process of seeking federal registration with the help of the University of Tennessee’s Legal Clinic. The two finalized the project as members of — and national semifinalists in — the 2016-2017 Young Entrepreneurs Academy.

    Right now, the nonprofit’s website features a single video story, that of Joseph Mpawenimana, who came to the United States in 2016 after living in a refugee camp in Uganda for 20 years. But John D. and Alexander intend the site — which benefits refugee resettlement organizations like Bridge Refugee Services — to eventually feature many more stories. Some they’ll film and edit, as they did Mpawenimana’s; others, refugees will be able to submit themselves, though they’ll go through a vetting process before being posted, John D. said. Meanwhile, they’re using social media to promote the nonprofit, which has Twitter and Instagram accounts.

    “I had the privilege to go through the process with them,” said Bridge Executive Director Drocella Mugorewera, who connected them with Mpawenimana. “The name was fascinating to me, and the approach they were taking. I think this is what we need, especially now.”

    A special connection:

    John D. found a special link to Mpawenimana, 30, whose teenage brother is deaf, the result of contracting meningitis in the refugee camp where they grew up.

    “There was no treatment for it,” John D. said, and no one to teach him or his family sign language. “He spent seven years without language, without any way to express himself,” until he arrived in America and was enrolled in a school for the deaf.

    John D. doesn’t use American Sign Language, so he relies fully on his own hearing aids. That’s one reason being in the running for hearing aid company Oticon’s 2018 Focus on People award is so meaningful to him.

    Recently, while he was taking a college course in Memphis, his own hearing aids broke days before he was due at debate camp, “which doesn’t really work if you can’t hear,” he said.

    The clinic was out of “loaner” hearing aids but eventually managed to “scrounge up” some demo aids, “so I could hear,” John D. said.

    “I was really appreciative of that, but I also thought about how awful it would be for the next kid who called and they didn’t have a pair ready,” he said.

    So, if he wins the award — which is decided by online voting at www.oticon.com— he’ll both get new hearing aids for himself and make a $1,000 donation to the University of Tennessee Speech and Hearing Center, “to make sure the next kid who calls will also have a chance to have some of the opportunities that I have had.”

    Voting ends Aug. 24; the winners will be announced in October.

    In his senior year of high school, John D. hopes to have RefugeeLikeMe up and running while applying for scholarships at Ivy League schools. His ultimate life goal: to sit on the Supreme Court.

    Creating the nonprofit with his best friend has been “an amazing experience,” John D. said. “We started out with this really big idea, and we’ve actually taken that big idea and thought about the legal issues and the personnel issues and the technical issues that it would take to actually take an idea this huge and turn it into something that’s real.”

    Source: Kristi L Nelson, Knoxville News Sentinel 
    Image credit: Lynda Cobb