Iowan Who Fled Oppression Joins Push for Immigration Reform

DES MOINES, Iowa — Yena Balekyani sees opportunity in her adopted state, and she has joined an effort for Congress to help create more of them. Monday, she joined Iowa business, health, community and education leaders in what they call the Iowa Compact on Immigration.

Read the proposal here and the groups backing it. 

Balekyani said, "We traveled around a few different refugee camps to actually come here."

She and her family fled the war-torn and poverty-stricken nation of the Democratic Republican of Congo when she was just one. The family moved from camp to camp in Tanzania and Mozambique. After a decade, the family settled in Iowa. She doesn't like to talk about the journey to get here.

"It's very traumatizing sometimes," Balekyani said.

Now 24 years old, she is pursing a master's degree at the University of Northern Iowa and serves as the founder and executive director of Congo Girls United, a group dedicated to celebrating contributions Congolese women and girls have made.

She hopes a renewed spotlight from Iowa will help Congress pass a series of immigration reforms that could increase opportunities for other Congolese refugees and immigrants from across the world to find a better life in Iowa.

"I believe we are going on 14 years," she said of her family's time in the state, "I consider myself an Iowan."

She would also like a focus on helping immigrants resume their careers once they arrive in the United States. She said that her father served as a mathematics teacher in Congo but wasn't able to practice his devotion when he settled in Iowa.

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