“There are good people everywhere.” Tiffany Jelke didn’t waver in her declaration. It was a truth that she had seen, lived, and heard. But that truth wasn’t easily earned.
As a child, Tiffany’s mother brought her on global adventures, visiting cities in Russia, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Egypt, Jordan, and Israel. Interacting with people from so many different cultures broadened Tiffany’s worldview. Her interest in people led to beginning her college career as a Psychology major at Texas Christian University in the early 90’s. But rather than finishing her degree, Tiffany earned a certification from the American Institute of Commerce. This move opened doors for Tiffany at EDS, the one-time tech giant started by Ross Perot. Tiffany funneled her love for people and cultures into her job as a corporate travel administrator, then transitioned to marketing and graphic design positions.
But when the entrepreneurial bug bit Tiffany, she decided to focus her talents and passions on a new local publication for the north Texas suburbs called Discover Frisco. Targeted toward moms, the community guide grew quickly over four years, reaching the growing area and attracting large advertisers. “I was just in the right place at the right time with the right skills,” said Tiffany.
It was only a personal struggle that could have forced Tiffany to close her successful business. A difficult divorce wore through her emotions and finances, forcing Discover Frisco to stop circulation. “I lost faith in people for awhile,” Tiffany shared. “And honestly, it took me almost ten years to recover emotionally.” But Tiffany did recover. As she began to see the light of what could be, she made up her mind to go back to school and finish her college degree as an example for her children. But at 37 years old, she wasn’t a typical student.
In December of 2015 she graduated with her AA from Collin College, but close to graduation, she was looking for a bachelor’s program that would allow her to work directly with people. Thankfully she bumped into a representative from Southern Methodist University (SMU) who happened to be setting up a recruiting table at Collin College – Tiffany applied on the spot.
The atmosphere at SMU was exactly what Tiffany was looking for, with a mix of traditional and non-traditional students, as well as plenty of people who, like her, were looking to make a difference in the world. And after one week in Dr. Halperin’s Intro to Human Rights class, Tiffany changed her major to Human Rights. Within a year she was traveling with Dr. Halperin and other students to Poland and then on a Civil Rights Pilgrimage of the southern United States, bringing new meaning to her love for people and travel.
During her first semester at SMU, Tiffany approached her required community service project with careful thought. She decided to volunteer at Refugee Services of Texas (RST), helping with administrative projects. A year later, during her last semester of undergraduate work, Tiffany was hired as the RST advocacy intern. “It was a new position,” said Tiffany. “But it allowed me to get my feet wet in the advocacy side of refugee support.” She collaborated with 20-year veteran, and now Tiffany’s mentor, Linda Abramson Evans, on educational events like the Interfaith Forum on Refugee Resettlement. “Instead of being in shock about the new wave of anti-refugee thinking, Linda got proactive and created space for dialogue and learning,” Tiffany shared. Through all of these experiences, Tiffany fell in love with the important work of refugee support.
Tiffany graduated from SMU in May of 2017 with a degree in Human Rights and minor in religious studies. But during her last semeseter, she learned about the Embrey Human Rights Community Outreach Fellowship, an award which offered a year of funding for a human rights project. Tiffany quickly applied, and the project she proposed was straightforward – a podcast in which refugees could share their own stories. “I pictured it as the refugee version of This American Life,” said Tiffany. “I wanted to feature refugee voices along with expert advocates.”
Tiffany was awarded the fellowship and granted funding for her podcast, In Their Own Voices. She brought on Allison Plake as her intern, a fellow Embrey Human Rights student with radio experience at KERA. Together the two passionate women began setting up a recording schedule. Her first episode featured Ghazwan Abdullah, his wife Huda, and their 11-year-old daughter Hiba who are Iraqi refugees resettled in Dallas. This family told the story of fleeing their country after receiving death threats from a sectarian militia, and how they are now working to help other refugee families.
Just as the podcast series began, Tiffany met with Donna Duvin, the then-Executive Director of the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Texas, who offered Tiffany the new role of Advocacy Associate. “Working at the IRC was a natural progression for my work with refugees in Dallas,” shared Tiffany. Her role at the IRC is focused on both educating the public, and legislative advocacy, encouraging political leaders to visit refugee programs, learn about U.S. refugee resettlement, and support positive legislation for refugees.
Tiffany hopes that her podcast, as well as her work as an advocate, will help shift the conversation about who refugees truly are. “It is so easy to assume that refugees aren’t educated, but many are. Women are educated, like Huda who was a civil engineer before leaving Iraq, or Bothina Matar, who loves English Literature and majored in it back home in Syria,” Tiffany told us. She also works to explain the complicated and often misunderstood process of refugee resettlement and how policy changes affect individuals who have been forced to flee his or her country due to well-founded fear of persecution for reason of race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.
To hear more about refugees who have made their home in Texas, you can listen to In Their Voices and visit Tiffany’s Human Rights Media website. And if you’d like to learn more about how to become an advocate for the cause of refugees and asylum seekers, you can email Tiffany directly.
If you know someone who is Doing Good in Dallas, we’d love to hear about it! Share their story with us.
Story by Mary Martin. Photos by Hunter Lacey.