Edafe Okporo will deliver his TED Talk at TEDxAsbury on Saturday, April 30, 2022. Tickets are available HERE.

In its 10th year, TEDxAsbury, at TwoRiverTheater, Red Bank NJ is among the largest and highest rated TEDx conferences in the world. 

Edafe is getting married in July, finished his Masters Degree from NYU School of Business, and will launch his book, Asylum, published in June 2022 by Simon & Schuster. Edafe, a refugee himself, has been working with LGBTQ displaced people for several years and recent Afghan refugees and is an expert on the world wide refugee crisis and possible solutions. 

Brian Smiga is a board director at the Roothbertfund.org, co-founding partner of AlphaPartners, and the founder of TEDxAsbury and 1act1idea. 

Brian Smiga: This is Brian Smiga with the TEDxAsbury conference, and this is the Expert Open podcast with one of our experts. Edafe Okporo, Edafe, great to meet you.

Edafe Okporo: Thank you very much, Brian. It’s a pleasure to be here.

Brian Smiga: Great. It’s exciting. Since you immigrated as a refugee to the United States in 2016, you have been fully tasked in this country, making your own life, making your own home and helping refugees throughout this period. And you’ve written a book about your own experience called Asylum coming out in June. So first off, let’s talk about the discipline of writing Asylum. How did you get started on that journey? How did you have the discipline when you were worried about making your way in America to get that book done? Congratulations, too.

Edafe Okporo: Thank you very much. I think that I’m not traditionally a writer, but I am traditionally a storyteller, and if you have a story to tell, there is definitely going to be an opportunity to tell that story. If there is a will, there will be a way. And I think that there is a will to make sure that my story becomes part of the American story of people coming here to seek protection. So I took three years to write this book, two years as a proposal and preparing the book. And when I sold the book to Simon & Schuster, it took me another one year in writing and now one year to publish. So it has been a very tough journey of disciplining myself to take two hours of my day, every day, to make sure that something gets onto paper.

Brian Smiga: But you heard it here: Edafe as a new immigrant and a refugee from Africa to United States was able to carve out two hours a day and maintain that discipline. Now you’re a natural storyteller, and you teach storytelling to refugees and to other folks, how did you translate from being able to tell a story orally to, the discipline of sitting there and writing that book two hours a day and editing your work? Were there any tips you want to share with the audience? Because I think a lot of our listeners want to write a book.

Edafe Okporo: Yeah. So I think writing a book and publishing a book are two different things. If you want to write a book, just to write a book, you can write a book, nobody will see it, but publishing a book is a very tough journey. So it took me at first just streams of consciousness for eight months. Just, this is the idea I want to get out there. But when my development editor touched the first manuscript, about 80,000 words, he was like, “This is not good! This is good. I like this! I like this!” So when my development editor came back with some edits, it kind of gave me direction of where I want to go to. So the only advice I have is to have a structure of what you want to say.

Edafe Okporo: So have a beginning, an ending, a middle. So when you sit down on your table, you know that this is what I’m trying to write today. So like I’m telling the story about soccer when I was 12 years old in my high school, a sport I loved very much. I already have an idea of what I want to write. So when I sit there, I think, I don’t edit and write at the same time. So I write for three months, and I edit for three months, and I go back to writing for about three months again. So I think writing is structured. It’s having a structure of what you want to say, then filling the blank.

Brian Smiga: So is there another book coming after Asylum?

Edafe Okporo: Hopefully. I lost my dad in May last year.

Brian Smiga: Oh, I’m sorry for your loss. I’m sorry.

Edafe Okporo: As a refugee. I couldn’t go back to my home country. So I’m trying to explore the idea of what does it mean for someone during a very difficult time, not to have people, to share just a simple embrace with, like my mother, to cry with them. And what does it mean for me to be this person that takes on being displaced, and also having the struggle of losing my father and not being there to mourn with my family. I graduated from my masters last year. My father was not there to see me. I’m going to get married. My father is not there. So I’m thinking about that idea, but I think it’s too soon to let it on paper, but it’s around my edge that, that might be, the next work I do is to tell a story of this struggle. We are all going through loss.

Brian Smiga: Well, besides fleeing, coming to the United States, finding your home, writing the book, getting your masters, you also have been really engaged with Afghan and other refugees around the country, serving on military bases and other places where we’ve brought in these wonderful immigrants, refugees, new citizens. Tell us about that work and your upcoming Ted talk.

Edafe Okporo: Thank you very much. I think that we called 2016, the global refugee crisis, but I think it was the “global racism crisis” because most of the refugees that were fleeing in 2016 from Syria were people of color and Muslims. There was a lot of Islamophobia, so they didn’t allow them to come into their countries. And that war led into this current refugee crisis, where in 2016 1 in every 157 persons on earth was a displaced person. Now in 2020, UNHCR published data, one in every 95 persons on earth is displaced. And now we are experiencing another global refugee crisis as of 2020, 4.8 million people are displaced. I think we’re crossing almost ten million people in less than a month with this Ukrainian crisis. And our task is not just to provide a safe space for people who are fleeing persecution, but to address the root cause of why people will be forced to flee.

Edafe Okporo: Because when you become a refugee, it’s not just what happens to you. It’s also who you become as a result of what happens to you. You now have to rebuild your life in a new country, maybe learn a new language, the foods, the culture, everything becomes different. So because I have experienced that, I have become this person that can use my expertise to help new people that are coming to the country. So when the Biden administration brought together, operation “Allies Welcome” headed by governor Jack Markell, I was called to participate in it. It was like a privilege for me to be able to help new Afghans that are coming to this country by educating military personnel on the trauma that these people are fleeing. So when someone becomes a refugee, the first one or two years is very difficult for you to understand the toll it takes on you, because at that time, we are thinking, where am I going to sleep? What am I going to eat? Am I going to have a job? 

But when you begin to resettle, you start thinking, oh, this is a favorite holiday we celebrate in my country. We don’t celebrate it here. Or my nephews and nieces on Facebook are celebrating their birthday oh we don’t celebrate it here. So I think that by sharing stories, by educating people on storytelling, it helps other refugees to see that they are not alone in the struggle. And this is a struggle other people have gone through. You can either learn from experience or you can learn from information. I think as a refugee learning from information is better than learning from experience. It’s a privilege most Americans have that they would not get to experience this struggle. But that is what I try to do with my talks is to create empathy because you would not otherwise experience this. It’s also an opportunity for you to put yourself in the shoes of this person and think, what can we do to find a solution for the global refugee crisis?

Brian Smiga: Wow. So there was a language difference between yourself and these Afghans. How did you bridge that language difference?

Edafe Okporo: Afghans speak Dari and Pashto, some of them speak Urdu close to Hindi. When on the base, we have translators. When I was in Quantico, I saw these kids playing soccer. So I decided to join them in playing soccer, like eight of them. And at the end of the game, I was looking at the video we recorded, and I discovered that none of these kids speak English. It was like soccer bridged the gap between the languages that we didn’t have to communicate. And I still watch the video whenever I feel down. It just shows you that sports can be a big bridge for people, but there are common languages that people have aside from verbal communication. I was in the base without a gun. I didn’t have a camouflage uniform. So I’m the person of color. They see me as their person.

And some people come to me to speak to me in their language. And I say, oh, “I don’t understand your language.” And they are stumped by the fact that someone that looks like them doesn’t speak their language. But I think it creates a form of acceptance that in the leadership that is coming to show them to a new country, that there’s someone of color, a fellow refugee among them. That there’s someone that has their experience, not exactly the way it was with them, but knows what they’re going through. So I think that bridged the language divide most of the time.

Brian Smiga: Great. Edafe, we have to end it here. Thanks so much for the interview. And we’re really looking forward to reading your book Asylum as it comes out in June and hearing your upcoming Ted talk “Home is Joy” at TEDxAsbury. So thank you so much for your time today. “Home is joy”. Want to hear about it, and there’s many more stories coming from you. Thank you so much.

Edafe Okporo: Thank you very much, Brian.

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