Rebecka Jonsson

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Rebecka Jonsson, 27
Born: Madrid, Spain
Grew-up: Stockholm, Sweden / Oregon, U.S.A
Lives: Portland, Oregon
Nominated by: Marta Soszynska

It seems as though Rebecka Jonsson’s path in life was set before she was even born. Rebecka’s great grandparents, along with her maternal grandmother, fled Cuba for the U.S.A. during the revolution. Despite being quite a prosperous family in Cuba, they left with only $200 sewn into a jacket pocket to start a new life with.

This instance of dispossession has become a source of fascination and inspiration in Rebecka’s life. She grew up between Spain, Sweden and the U.S.A. before a chance opportunity to work in the Democratic Republic of Congo ignited in her a desire to fully understand the phenomenon of migration, particularly forced migration. She moved to France where she enrolled in a Masters of International Public Management, Migration and Applied Economic Theory. It’s there that she met fellow Friday Bester, Marta Soszynska, and came to be featured on these pages.

Since graduating in 2012, Rebecka has worked in Kenya as a caseworker for the U.S. Resettlement Support Centre, and now she is back in Portland, Oregon, working on the other side of that process, welcoming and helping to resettle refugees whose applications were successful.

She is tireless. And, astonishingly, despite having seen some of the ugliest sides of mankind, she is full of hope for the future. She is a true humanitarian, altruistic to the core.

You might wonder where she finds the strength and motivation to keep doing the work she is doing? Well, she told me: in those twinkles of pure and real goodness that can sometimes be glimpsed in the midst of hardship.

 


I want to start off by asking about your maternal grandparents and great grandparents. You mentioned in your biography that their story had impacted you greatly, so I wondered if you could talk to that a little bit?

Well, it was something that was never really talked about that much in the family but when it was, you knew that it had impacted their lives, especially my grandmother’s.

My grandmother left Cuba when she was about nineteen right when she was about to get married. Her father (my great grandfather) and his three brothers had started this shoe business and they were very well known throughout Cuba and a lot of south America. The shoes were very well made and even now when I speak to some older generation Cubans they all remember it with pride. It was a Cuban product that had the quality to be able to compete with other country’s shoes.

My great grandfather had invested all his money into this business. But when the revolution came it was all taken away from him and he was basically left with nothing. My grandmother always told me that her family was on one of the last legal flights out of Cuba and he had only $200 sown into the inside lining of his coat. That money paid for her wedding when they got to Miami.

My great grandfather’s story is quite heartbreaking. He gave his life to a country and in the end everything got taken away. And he was a very good man; he started his own shoe repair business in Miami when he arrived but shortly after he just died of a heart attack while preparing to go to church one Sunday. The events in Cuba literally broke his heart.

In the end those it’s those stories that impact you because you see the direct results in your own life. Even if my grandmother was still able to have a relatively successful life, there was always the underlying factor that Cuba was not talked about very much.

The family + Izzat

Rebecka with her husband and her immediate family, she is the oldest of seven!

So your mum was born in the U.S.?

Yes, in Chicago. But when she was about eight years old they moved to Sudan and then they moved to Beirut until the civil war started and were forced to leave. So my mother was born in the U.S. but grew up in various different places.

Similar to you!

Yes, in a way it is. And I think by having such a—I guess—crazy mother that’s open to many things, I was able to follow in my own way and feel comfortable taking risks in life that maybe normally someone wouldn’t.

What do you mean by open to many things? Is your mum quite adventurous?

Yes, both my parents are, they just moved to Mexico City on a whim. They’re like that. They really liked where they were, in Portland, but they just decided it was the best thing to do right now.

My mother has a flexibility that you normally don’t see in a lot of people, sometimes it is irrational which is hard to deal with as a kid but she’s very open to people, new things and a lot of ideas while still remaining strong to the base of her religion.

And a lot of that has rubbed off on you?

Yes, in a way. I think I see things in a different way than she does but still with that open mentality. We also get our strength in different forms.

What kind of forms do you think you get your strength from?

I think more from the humanity…people, the connections and understanding one another. I think that gives me strength because there’s a bond that you form with everyone you encounter and I love that.


Africa hooked me in a way and not only because you really get to see how things can really go wrong, but I think you can see humanity at its purest. Things that we’ve forgotten about.


Your father is Swedish, so you grew up with dual influences. What has that meant for you? Do you feel Spanish or Cuban? Do you feel Swedish? Do you feel American?

A very fun question and I get it quite often!

I do feel Spanish in some aspects. Just recently I was living in Spain again and I truly like it, in spite of having been sceptical at first. I think I’ll probably end up settling down there.

But at the same time I’m reserved in some things, which is very Swedish. I like my privacy and can be very practical at times. And then I do like my American side because I think the American side is there to try new things, it’s there to take risks. American society is about instant gratification in a way and I do have that a bit in me. I get that jittery-ness.

So I’m a mix, I’m a weird mix. I have a lot of fun with my now husband because when anything goes wrong I can just blame it on one side or the other, I can say, ‘Oh it’s the Spanish and Cuban in me, or it’s the Swedish in me.’

And you’ve just come back to the States from Kenya where you were assisting with the U.S. refugee resettlement program and now you’re working at the other end of that process in Portland…is that right?

Yes, right now I am helping with the resettlement of new refugees arriving in Portland. In Nairobi, Kenya, I was interviewing refugees who were being considered for the resettlement process to the U.S. and now I am working and helping to pick up the refugees at the airport and find them a house to live in.

In terms of the people that you were working with where were they from? Who was coming through the program?

We were processing out of Nairobi, which meant a lot of them came to the refugee camps in Kenya and they were mostly Somalis. But we had everything from Congolese, Ethiopians, Eritreans, South Sudanese, Sudanese and just recently I was in West Africa where there were a lot of refugees from the Ivory Coast, Chad and Central African Republic. It was all kinds of people because it’s a slow, slow process. Some of these people have been in refugee camps for two years, while others have been there all their lives.

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Rebecka with her journalist friend, Qabaata, in the Kakuma Refugee Camp for South Sudanese refugees

What motivated you to get involved in Africa as opposed to the issues of migration or forced migration in other countries?

It’s very funny, after college I was working in wind energy. I had never thought about forced migration, more just about migration in general. At the time I was given an opportunity to go and teach in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

I ended up working in Kinshasa and then also visiting Goma for a week where I got to see the reality and when you see that, as much as you can read, as much as you can talk to people that have been there, when you get to experience it yourself, to see real child soldiers trying to be re-integrated into society, to see real orphans that have been neglected because of war, you see that those are the elements that are going to change society later on. I think that’s when I realised it was what I wanted to focus on.

I discovered that I really wanted to learn about a country where people had to flee from or wanted to leave. I wanted to understand why and what conditions they had to live in to get to that position. I wanted to fully understand how that can be helped.

Africa hooked me in a way and not only because you really get to see how things can really go wrong, but I think you can see humanity at its purest. Things that we’ve forgotten about.

So after that, that’s when I did my masters focusing in migration studies.


…that human connection is what keeps me going. That I made a difference, that I made their life a bit better. 


And so your day to day now…what is an average day like for you?

Well it’s kind of crazy, every week I have at least one refugee arrival. So, for example this week I had a family of ten that came and I was in charge of finding a house for them with the budget they were given from the U.S. government.

So driving a big twelve seater van to the airport at eight o’clock on a Monday night and getting an interpreter then the next day going to visit them, going into the office, making sure they’re okay. Also checking up on other cases you’re in charge of and following up with the familes throughout the week, making sure they know how to take the bus, so they can come and see you in the office and become independent, explain to them the services you will be providing.

In the end you work a lot of extra hours because you want to make sure that the family is doing well. It’s intense because you are the first person they see in the airport and they really depend on you on making their new life in the U.S. meet their expectations. And let me tell you, a lot of them come with very high expectations.

That’s a tough gig, I imagine. What keeps you going?

It’s that connection that when you get it—it might take a week, it might take two weeks—but that human connection is what keeps me going. That I made a difference, that I made their life a bit better. It’s the reassurance that their integration into a new life is a bit better than it would be without you there.

You’ve seen so much of the world, much more than many people, you’ve seen lots of ugly things as well as wonderful things…are you hopeful for the future? 

My husband likes to tell me I’m naive and idealistic. But as long as I can be naive and idealistic, I’ll keep being hopeful for the future.

I think too many people are very cynical and are jaded and I think that there is goodness out there in general. There are people who have survived horrific things and still smile every day because they are happy to have been given the little they have. That’s what gives me hope.

I’m sure there will be a bright future and it doesn’t hurt to dream.

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Rebecka on the night before her wedding with her friends from all over the world, from Congo to Morocco, from Germany to Poland

There should be more people in this world like you. Where do you think you’ll be in ten years then? You said you imagine you’ll settle in Spain, do you think that’s where you’ll be. 

Yeah, my ideal situation would be based in Spain but able to travel the world for work.

Marta said something very similar! The dream job for her involves still being able to get out there and see things!

Exactly. But at the same time, still have a base. It’s idealistic and very difficult with international jobs because normally you’re in a job two years then you move on. But when you have someone else in your life you have to figure it out with them.

Madrid is wonderful and I think we both would like having it as a base. A lot of people joke about it and say it is still Africa because it is slow and some things don’t work very well and there’s a bureaucracy that’s horrific but you can go and have a cheap lunch and have your beer and sit outside for hours and just talk and I love that.

One day… I also dream of helping shape immigration policy.

We need you in Australia, can you get down here?

[laughs] Yeah, Australia has a lot of issues…


Curiosity might kill the cat, but in my mind, at least the cat was living…


So who has had the biggest impact on your life do you think?

You know, two years ago I probably would have said my mother. But life changes when you meet someone that you want to spend your life with. My mother allowed me to dream and never let me settle. Whereas now I have a person in my life that allows me to dream, but realistically. I have a peace that I didn’t have before and I love that because I think that’s finding a balance.

And would you describe yourself as successful?

I don’t know. I feel like success means that you’ve done the most with the tools and talents that have been given to you. So I think you can be successful in many ways or in many shapes and forms.

I think I could do more with what has been given to me. For example there are times I don’t sell myself well enough. I hate that word but I think that’s a tool that I need to utilise. I’ve taken opportunities that have been there but at the same time I think I can do more.

So…I’m not gonna say no and I’m not gonna say yes.

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Rebecka and her husband Izzat on their wedding day after cutting the cake

Do you have any role models who you think are successful? That have made the most of the tools they have been given?

It’s hard, I’ve realised this year especially that I’m kind of critical of my role models. I’ve started seeing what they are able to do very well while noticing what they could improve. I’m trying to stay away from that critical mindset and focus more on the things that I admire in them.

I did work with this crazy woman who is 82 and still working away. She founded the first forced migration studies centre in the world, in Oxford, and she’s dedicated her life to it. She has started or helped start refugee rights projects and programs throughout the world, one in Uganda, another one in Egypt, and the list goes on. I aspire to that but I also want a strong and healthy personal life…like I said balance for me is very important. If I could do half, even a fourth, of what she’s been able to do I would be amazed.

Speaking of a balanced life, what do you think it means to be a young woman in 2015? 

I think it means more opportunity than women have had in the past but it also means that we have many high expectations to meet. We’re getting more degrees, we’re in school much more, so let’s see the outcome of that, what are we going to do with that?

I think its great having families and I want one of my own but how do we find that balance? How do we push society to allow us to have a career if we want to but at the same time have a good family life? Most importantly it’s also about woman being more supportive of one another. We should be finding support in one another, not critics.

What do you think we should be talking more about?

I think we should be talking more about how much the world is changing and how we are losing a bit of our humanity. I feel that were not really connecting with those around us—we are failing to have meaningful conversations.

I think that’s why I love Spain and want to go back. There you see older generations sitting together and having their glass of wine or coffee in the afternoon, they can still go out and enjoy life with their friends.

Do you think that one person can change the world?

I do. Because there has been people who have changed the world. However, I don’t want to change the world, I want to help it bit by bit. I get it’s idealistic but if I can do it that’s great. One person at a time.

One final question, what advice would you give to your grandchildren?

Don’t forget to look around you. Be curious. Find out who is standing next to you, or why something works the way it does. Curiosity might kill the cat, but in my mind, at least the cat was living…

Thank-you Rebecka Jonsson!

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Things I Love

My family and friends

It’s only when you are no longer around them that you truly appreciate what it means to have them in your life.

Dancing

There is nothing more freeing than letting yourself loose on the dance floor.

Sunday afternoon in Madrid

Being able to bike somewhere new for cheap tapas and good conversation.


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