Finding Her Place Serving The Displaced

One student's journey toward a more purposeful life

June 20, 2016

I first met Marilena Hatoupis in the fall of 2012 in New York City. We were just starting to get +Acumen courses off the ground and it was our very first course meetup. Marilena was quiet and reserved. But I could tell that she was eager to learn. Marilena wanted to become more involved, but only in supporting roles. She didn’t yet feel ready to raise her hand and take the lead. Today, much has changed. By day, Marilena works for a large publishing and education firm. At night, she is the co-founder and Executive Director of the U.S. branch of URBAN REFUGEES, an organization focused on amplifying the profile and voice of refugees who are living outside humanitarian camps, in cities of the Global South. Those refugees now account for almost 60% of the world’s refugee population, yet they often pass under the humanitarian radar because they live outside of the formal refugee camp system.

These changes, however, didn’t happen over-night. Marilena’s journey towards a more purposeful and fulfilling life has been three years in the making. Recently, I sat down with Marilena to hear the story of how she went from searching for her passion to heading an organization working to amplify the voices of more than 10 million people around the world, and what she has learned in the process.

Back when I met Marilena, she was working in the arts and entertainment industry. After five and half years, she was ready for a change, and embarked on a search to find more meaning and purpose. “I was looking for something that was bigger than myself where I could contribute in a positive way.” Marilena said. “But I had no idea what that was.”

“I was looking for something that was bigger than myself"

She started to search online and came across Acumen. “I started to look for ways to get involved,” she said. The +Acumen course meetup came up, so she decided to go. “The people were so nice, open-minded and really willing to think through problems and very solutions oriented,” Marilena recounts of her first meetup. “I was totally captivated.”

For the next two years, Marilena got more involved with +Acumen – one step at a time. First as a course ambassador (a role we’ve since retired) and then as the chair of the Education Committee of the NY+Acumen Chapter. She also took a lot of +Acumen courses. “I got really into them,” Marilena said. “They showed me a different way of thinking.” They’ve also helped her with soft skills.

“I think what I was lacking when I started two years ago was leadership skills,” Marilena told us. “I didn’t really know how to connect with people. I was really shy about talking to people about what I really thought. The courses really helped me. Adaptive Leadership helped me a lot. Storytelling for Change helped me a lot. And just talking to the other people taking the courses helped me a lot too.”

With her new-found confidence and insights, she started to put all she had learned into practice. At the same time, she spent a lot of time meeting new people, going to events, and reading any and all books and articles that could help her understand how others turned their desire to contribute into action.

It wasn’t until October 2015 that Marilena discovered URBAN REFUGEES while researching Their cause resonated with her deeply. As the daughter of a diplomat, she grew up living in different places across the world - many of which are heavily affected by the refugee crisis. “I moved around a lot as a child and always felt out of place,” Marilena said. “I’ve been in situations when I’ve felt like I had major losses. I’ve been lucky enough to have people come into my life during those times to give me the support I needed to get back on track. I think in some ways refugees are similar. People have chosen to leave or had to leave their homes and find themselves in situations where they’re completely unsupported and living in dire, dire conditions. If we’re not going to do something about it and support each other as human beings then what’s the point?”

Started in Paris in late 2012 by Sonia Ben Ali and David Delvalle, URBAN REFUGEES is a nonprofit organization. After years of working with refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs), Sonia noticed that the bulk of assistance is directed to camps while most refugees live in cities with little to no support. Sonia and David started URBAN REFUGEES to amplify the voice and the profile of urban refugees on the humanitarian agenda. They were looking to expand to the U.S. and that’s when they posted an ad to

Marilena responded to their ad and immediately hit it off with Sonia. In September of 2015, Marilena co-founded the U.S. branch of URBAN REFUGEES. She’s worked in parallel with Sonia to recruit 30 volunteers and develop the internal processes necessary for the team to work together globally. She also spearheaded a crowd-funding campaign with the Paris Office that generated $15,000 for the organization. They also just landed a grant to bring on some team members full-time and pilot an incubator program in Malaysia. The program will provide leadership training and capacity building to the leaders of refugee-led organizations. Ultimately, URBAN REFUGEES hopes to shift traditional perceptions and humanitarian programs to better support urban refugees and give them a place at the policy table.

When I asked Marilena how she feels about her life today, she smiled and said, “I’m in a very good place. My happiness level has increased tremendously. I’ve learned that this search is really more of a journey and being able to adapt to the different phases of our lives. When I started out for some reason I felt like I needed to have this clear end goal that everything had to be really organized and make sense. But I learned if you just open your mind a bit more and become more adventurous, courageous and exploratory you can find all these wonderful things happening that you can participate in. You can be part of it! You don’t necessarily have to be a spectator. You can be active and contribute.”


If you’re interested in supporting or getting more involved with URBAN REFUGEES, you can

Spread Positive Change



Newsletter Form