Destination: Hope. Cole Varga ’10 Leads Refugee Assistance

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When Nduwimana Sada Nahayo fled her war-torn province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2009, she and her two children had no destination; only the hope that they would find peace and safety.

It would take two years of illness and uncertainty before the family settled in Ethiopia, where their dreams of becoming American citizens were answered with the help of Exodus Refugee Immigration, a resettlement agency based in Indianapolis and now run by University of Indianapolis alumnus Cole Varga ’10 (international relations).

Today, Varga has led the resettlement of dozens of families just like Nahoyo’s. He joined Exodus as an intern in 2009 after learning of the organization through faculty member Jyotika Saksena in the International Relations graduate program. He earned his master’s degree in 2010, and served as an adjunct instructor at UIndy until he was promoted to executive director of Exodus.

Varga and his team, which includes several UIndy graduates and interns, help refugees realize the American dream by assisting with job searches, finding housing, securing food and medical care and taking English-speaking lessons — life necessities to put them on the path toward success and happiness.

“People from all across the world want the same things: the opportunity to live in safety and to give their children the chance to thrive,” Varga says. “Even though they have been through unimaginable circumstances, refugees are capable of incredible things. The talents and cultural vibrancy they bring to Indiana are well worth the investment.”

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In its 36th year of operation, Exodus is one of about 300 resettlement agencies in the United States. In 2016, Exodus welcomed 947 refugees from 17 countries, including Burma, Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Burundi, Central African Republic, China, Cuba, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Honduras, Iran, Iraq, Somalia, Sudan and Ukraine.

Roughly 90 percent of the organization’s funding comes from the federal government, and the recent executive orders on immigration have had a direct impact on their work. Exodus now faces a drastic 40 percent reduction in staffing. The number of refugees allowed into the U.S. has been cut by more than half, a decision that “immediately does major damage to the infrastructure of this program across the country,” Varga says.

Despite the challenges ahead, Varga is confident Exodus will follow the example of the community, which has stepped up and contributed funds and volunteers in wake of the budget cuts to Exodus and its mission.

“The families that Exodus serves are just like American families – and now they are American families,” said Varga, who was named one of the Indianapolis Business Journal’s “40 under 40” young professionals for 2017.

Facing a never-ending line of entrants to the United States, Varga continues to be motivated by the feeling he had greeting a family of refugees at the airport on his first day with Exodus: “It was really inspiring what they had overcome.”