Too often we judge people by how they look and forget what makes someone human. In the last year, it seems America’s rhetoric about refugee and Muslims is increasingly hateful, as if we forgot they are human beings just like us. People associate anything Muslim and refugee with negative views. Being a refugee or a Muslim does not make you a bad person, period.
I am pleased to share with you the amazing story of a Muslim refugee who happens to be one of the original whistleblowers of the Wells Fargo banking scam. Despite everything he demonstrates true patriotism.
His name is Kilian. He was born and raised in Baghdad, Iraq. Kilian grew up as a Muslim culturally with respect to his Jewish descent. His parents raised him up as a socialist liberal who fought for human rights since he was a teenager. Killian grew up standing up against the Saddam Regime.
As a child, Kilian was bullied for being half Jewish and a gender fluid person. This experience did not tear him down, instead it built him up as a speaker against injustice. In high school he became an outspoken defender for the rights of the minority Shiite students who were being bullied by other Sunni students and faculty members.
After the U.S. invasion to Iraq in 2003, his father started working with the U.S. military in a jail facility in Baghdad. Kilian’s mother was also working at a non-profit humanitarian organization and worked directly with U.S. military personnel. Both Kilian’s parents received death threats from an anti-American militia. His mother had to quit her job because of it.
One day in 2005, Kilian’s father did not make it home from work. He was kidnapped. The militia called Kilian’s family demanding money in exchange for his father’s life. Kilian’s family sold everything they owned to pay the ransom. Once they got his father back home safely, they fled to Syria and became refugees.
In Syria life was not easy for Kilian and his family. Kilian told me he and his sister were not allowed to work and go to school in Syria. The UNHCR (UN Refugee Agency) helped Kilian start law school. But this was also short lived as another civil war broke out in Aleppo.
The economy crashed in Syria with the civil war raging. Refugees were the hardest hit by this downturn. Kilian’s family was in extreme need for basic needs. Kilian had no choice but to sell his body to get money to bring food home. He was even stopped at a militia checkpoint, detained, stripped, and almost beaten to death. Kilian passed out for many hours only to wake up to blood all over his face. With no access to a hospital, he suffered in pain for many months after that.
Even with such turmoil surrounding him, Kilian did not sit idle as a “helpless refugee”. He volunteered with the UNHCR in Aleppo and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and Danish Red Cross counseling center.
While in Syria, Kilian’s family had to renew their visa every 3 months having to go back and forth between Iraq and Syria’s dangerous borders.
Many people died trying to renew their visas. Kilian’s family faced this fear every 3 months for 7 years.
Kilian’s most prized possession during that time was his cell phone. It was his lifeline to hope. It was the only way the UN Refugee Agency could contact refugees to inform them of any progress on their cases.
“Every night we prayed to God to get that phone call to invite us for the next interview in our vetting process,” Kilian remembers.
As refugees in Syria, Kilian’s family went through seven different individual interviews with the UNHCR (UN Refugee Agency), IOM (International Organization for Migration) and the DHS (Department of Homeland Security). They were also fingerprinted and had a universal background check as well as a full medical check before they were granted this 3rd country resettlement to the U.S.A.
Many people in the U.S. think that refugees coming to this country just wake up to find themselves somewhere in the states. It doesn’t work that way. Refugees go through interviews in the process. This can be traumatizing as you must repeat your horrible experiences and tell your story over and over again in detail. Imagine having to explain over and over that you were raped, or saw your mom or sister sexually abused. The interview process takes many years.
Finally, after many years of struggle and persecution, on July 27th, 2011, Kilian and his family were granted a visa to the U.S. Their journey to America: Aleppo – Damascus – Paris – Los Angeles. At every stop they were detained and asked many questions.
After a few weeks in the U.S., Kilian got his social security card which allowed him to work at Subway and Wal-Mart. Later, he joined the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in San Diego as a case worker helping other Iraqi’s transition to life in American. After the IRC, Kilian became a personal banker at Wells Fargo.
As a refugee, Kilian made the most of his work and always found his way up. Refugees do not steal people's jobs. Refugees are not beggars or lazy. They work hard, pay taxes, and contribute to the economy and development of this country. Refugees and immigrants are the most hardworking people you can imagine because they are trying to make their second chance dream come alive after losing almost everything.
So, that’s how Kilian came to America. Now, here’s how he became a hero of a big banking scandal in America.
Kilian’s work at Wells Fargo was a turning point in his advocacy life. Kilian said, “At my job as a personal banker, I felt the pressure of the sales goals and the toxic environment at Wells Fargo.” He also witnessed daily fraud that was committed against Wells Fargo customers, especially the elderly and people of color.
Kilian like any other American did not want to lose his job. The issue had been weighing on him. It was against his morals to let such injustice continue. One day, he had enough. He was afraid of losing his job, but decided to become one of the first whistleblowers against Wells Fargo.
He started organizing with the Committee for Better Banks, a group of bank workers and community activists that work against big banks greed. He delivered two petitions signed by more than 13,000 bank workers. Each asking Wells Fargo to lower the high sales goals, pay a fair share to its employees and included divesting from private prisons and the Dakota Access Pipeline.
In 2016, Kilian spoke in an open testimony to U.S. Congress against Wells Fargo Bank. He appeared on the NY Times, the LA Times, the San Diego Times, and the Wall Street Journal. He also appeared on Fox Business TV channel and MSNBC. He continued to lobby for workers rights in Congress.
Kilian attended the Wells Fargo Shareholders meeting in 2017 and spoke directly to the shareholders where he convinced CEO Tim Sloan to meet with the Committee for Better Banks several times a year to discuss Wells Fargo’s members issues. Because of his courage, Wells Fargo was fined $180 million by the federal government and the City of LA for its account creation scandal.
Kilian was also the first American (and refugee) bank worker to represent the country in the NEXGEN17 union conference in Sydney, Australia, to testify to the Australian Parliament in an open public hearing about bank workers’ rights.
Kilian continues to advocate for human rights in America. He spoke at different rallies around the country about workers, refugees, and LGBTQIA rights. He also spoke at the Muslim Ban protests in Los Angeles and San Diego airports. His list of participating in protests goes on and on.
Refugees and immigrants can sometimes be more “patriotic” than some native-born Americans. Former refugees like Kilian, embrace the freedoms of this country to speak out on issues important to them and to other Americans. Some American-born take it for granted and don’t do anything to promote a better society.
I asked Kilian what message he has for refugee youth today, he said:
“My advice to young refugees and immigrants around the world is to believe in themselves and in their God. God is great, but also God created hopes in our hearts. If we lose hope, we have lost it all. I survived 2 civil wars, almost being beaten to death, and a suicide attempt. Today, I am an inspirational speaker, a human rights activist, and a Chemical Engineering student at the University of California in Riverside. Everything is possible if you stick to your hopes and work hard to achieve your dreams and to survive. Always remember to care about others and be kind to yourself. Always remember that you were brought to this earth for a reason and you are a messenger of God on this earth. You and only you can deliver this message and you and only you can make it happen.”
Read more about Kilian’s activism here:
Follow him on Social Media too:
Twitter: @kiliantcolin - https://twitter.com/Kiliantcolin
Facebook: @kiliantcolin - Just Another Refugee