In honor of Women’s History Month, the O’Neill School is using our March blogs as a platform to highlight the women of O’Neill, including students, faculty, and alumni, and their work to make a difference in our communities.
Written by: Sara Hindi, BSPA’16 and current O’Neill MPA student
Women’s History Month is a time to recognize and celebrate the women who have broken barriers and inspired us. In my personal and professional life, that means honoring the strength and resilience of immigrant and refugee mothers and women, including my grandmother—a Palestinian refugee—and my mother who emigrated from Jordan to Indianapolis in 1997 with my father and their three young children.
My own family’s journey made me a passionate advocate for other immigrants. That passion turned into a career I love, thanks to O’Neill IUPUI and the Center for Service and Learning at IUPUI, and an internship with Exodus Refugee Immigration that opened the door to a full-time job.
Exodus Refugee is a local resettlement agency dedicated to welcoming and serving refugees and other forcibly displaced populations who now live in Indianapolis. In the last five years, we have welcomed 2,268 refugees from countries including Burma, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, and more. We greet them at the airport and help them with employment services, English classes, case management, and much more. We even have a program dedicated specifically to helping refugee women and mothers overcome additional barriers.
In my five years at Exodus, I’ve had the privilege of getting to know many refugee mothers and women. I’ve heard many stories of grief, loss, and trauma—but these stories are also rooted in strength and perseverance. It has given me deep admiration for mothers and women who leave everything behind in war-torn countries to find a safe place to call home. For many, this is a life-or-death decision—leaving their home is the only way to survive.
They leave behind family, friends, language, and culture to raise their children in a new and unfamiliar country, with the hope that their child can get an education and a safe place to call home. When I ask mothers what their hopes and dreams are in Indianapolis, they often respond with, “I just want my kids to go to school and get an education.” They have left everything they know behind, not for themselves, but for their children.
When I think of resilient refugee women, I think of one of our refugee clients and my colleague, Suihlei Tha. Suihlei fled religious and ethnic persecution from Burma—also known as Myanmar—by herself in 2009. She was 21 years old, and she went to Malaysia, where she met and married her husband. They eventually were resettled in Indianapolis in 2015, reuniting with her brother. Suihlei always said, “Without having faith, I wouldn’t be able to survive.”
Suihlei did not speak English when she arrived and worked many jobs, including as a housekeeper at a hotel downtown. An Exodus staff member told Suihlei that refugees have the right to continue their education in the United States. She worked hard to learn English and attend college. In 2020, she earned a bachelor’s degree in social work and now works at Exodus. She also has a daughter now—one she hopes will remember her parents’ refugee story and make her own positive impact on the community.
While refugee mothers and women live safely in the United States, we cannot forget that far too often they face anti-refugee and anti-immigrant rhetoric that is deeply rooted in the ideology that America is for some, not all. This harmful rhetoric forces us, as Americans, to constantly have conversations about who belongs here and who does not—although history shows this land truly belongs to indigenous peoples. We often try to pick and choose who is an American, rather than embracing that America is all of us, no matter our language, birthplace, immigration status, or beliefs.
Having met so many refugee women, I can tell you they embody the resilience and perseverance we all strive to have. I am honored to be a part of an agency that embraces everyone. To the immigrant and refugee women in our city and state: thank you for your bravery. You make our community better, and we are grateful that you too call Indiana home.