A Voice for the Voiceless: Alum becomes leading advocate for refugees

Cole Varga standing in a hallway
Cole Varga, BA’05, the executive director of Exodus Refugee Immigration, which helps refugees immigrate to the U.S. and become productive members of their new communities. Photo Courtesy of Indiana Business Journal.

It takes a special kind of person to dedicate his or her career to helping people who are fleeing from war and political strife. Cole Varga, BA’05, is one of them.

Varga is the executive director of Indianapolis-based Exodus Refugee Immigration, which has a 36-year track record of helping refugees from more than 30 war-torn and politically repressed countries. This organization aids refugees in the process of immigrating to the United States and becoming productive members of communities in the Indianapolis area. On his watch, thousands of Burmese refugees, in particular, have created new lives for themselves in the state-capital region, even to the point where they are starting businesses and creating jobs.

After graduating from IU with degrees in criminal justice and psychology—he says his time at IU turned him into a “travel junkie” and “global citizen”—Varga pursued a master’s degree in international relations at the University of Indianapolis. In 2009, he was looking for an internship when a professor recommended Exodus. He signed on as an intern and then was hired full-time. He rose through the ranks, eventually becoming director of operations, and then, about a year ago, executive director.

“I popped in and had an interview and basically never left because I just fell in love with the work and the people,” he says. “I like to describe it as international work that you can do locally.”

Varga says he joined Exodus thinking it might be a springboard to a job at the United Nations, but he soon discovered that he was already in a position to significantly affect national and international affairs.

With an assist by the ACLU, Exodus in 2015 successfully sued then-Indiana Governor (and current U.S. Vice President) Mike Pence, JD’86, in federal court after Pence, questioning the vetting process, attempted to force state agencies to withhold federal funds that had been earmarked for assisting Syrian refugees.

“Extreme vetting already exists for refugees,” Varga says. “It’s been the hardest way to get into the country for some time now.”

Despite policy changes and budget cuts, Varga says he’s encouraged and inspired by how Indianapolis residents have welcomed the Burmese. “They’re saying, ‘Hey, this is a hardworking group of people. They’re saving up to buy houses, and their kids are becoming valedictorians in our schools.’ It’s serving as a model of how this can go, and it’s helping pave the way for the Congolese and Syrians who have started to come in recent years.”

But, Varga says, don’t take his word for it. “I would encourage people to learn the facts about refugee resettlement, and if you believe it’s something that’s part of our Hoosier values, to call your senators and representatives and tell them that we want to be a welcoming state. No, we want to be the welcoming state. That’s what Hoosiers are known for.”

This article appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of the Indiana University Alumni Magazine, a magazine for members of the IU Alumni Association. View current and past issues of the IUAM.

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Brian Hartz
Brian Hartz, MA’01, is a journalist and tennis coach based in St. Petersburg, Fla. In addition to writing for the Indiana University Alumni Magazine, he covers business news for the St. Pete Catalyst.