Between running a national refugee awareness campaign, organizing clothing donation drives for newly-resettled immigrants, and juggling high school, 19-year-old Matthew Tikhonovsky’s schedule is jam-packed. “I guess you could say I’m very, very busy,” Matthew said. “You don’t even want to see my weekly calendar.”
Matthew started working on issues relating to immigration when he was a freshman in high school in Atlanta, GA. He’s since spoken at high schools and colleges nationwide about refugee resettlement, and he co-launched a research study on the Trump Administration’s immigration policies.
“When I first got involved, my goal was just to provide clothing items to newly-resettled refugees in my hometown, since my hometown is home to the largest refugee population in America,” Matthew explained. “But as I began to get more involved, I discovered that most young people had so many misconceptions about refugees. It still frustrates me, but so many people believed that refugees aren’t vetted properly and that refugees are terrorists, which obviously is categorically false.”
For Matthew, xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiments are personal, since his own parents are refugees from Ukraine. “I grew up hearing people mocking my parents for their Russian accents and foreign last name. My dad faced pay discrimination at work because of his immigration status, so I’ve always known that immigrants, especially refugees, are unfairly treated in America.”
Fueled by frustration and a strong sense of justice, in 2017 Matthew co-launched Walk A Campus In My Shoes, an awareness campaign that educates young people about how refugees come to America. Three years later, the campaign has been featured at over 60 high schools and colleges nationwide, including at Princeton and Yale.
“It’s been amazing hearing from students, especially immigrant students, who felt like the campaign helped them fight xenophobia in their schools. That really makes all of my work—and my super busy schedule—worth it.”
Ironically, Matthew hasn’t always been a fan of awareness campaigns.
“I once thought that awareness campaigns are not effective, since they technically don’t make tangible change. But my work has taught me that awareness campaigns are absolutely necessary to fight ignorance and prejudice,” Matthew explained. “I firmly believe that people, only through education, can change their views, evolve, and even take a stand against xenophobia.”
“Knowledge,” Matthew added, “is the greatest weapon in the fight against prejudice.”
Walk A Campus In My Shoes and Matthew’s service initiative, Refugee Thrive, have received recognition from T-Mobile and the Clinton Global Initiative Social Venture Challenge. But for Matthew, recognition was never the goal.
“Through my community service, my sole mission has always been to support and champion refugees and immigrants, just like people did to my parents three decades ago when they came to America.”
Written by: Kimmie Kardam Student, Walton High School | Writer, Voices of Youth