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Academy hones leadership skills

Posted on November 27, 2015 at 6:04 am

By Kollin Miller

The entire bus ride to Washington, D.C., Dieudonne Manirakiza sat very excited, but at the same time, nervous. The traffic certainly wasn’t helping. Through stop-and-go traffic they went. Finally, the bus arrived on Capitol Hill.

Manirakiza and the other refugees who attended the 2015 Migrant and Refugee Leadership Academy were getting a chance to meet with congressional representatives and advocate the needs and issues most pressing to refugees.

Manirakiza had given speeches before, but this was different. He was going to be able to sit down and talk face-to-face with members of Nebraska Rep. Brad Ashford’s staff. Ashford would get to hear first-hand accounts from refugees living in the state he represents.

Shafiq Jahish, left, and Dieudonne Manirakiza traveled from Lincoln to Washington, D.C., for the 2015 Migrant and Refugee Leadership Academy. / Courtesy photo

Dieudonne Manirakiza, right, traveled from Lincoln to Washington, D.C., for the 2015 Migrant and Refugee Leadership Academy. / Courtesy photo

Finally, the time came, and Manirakiza along with his fellow Nebraskans shook hands with Ashford and his staff and sat down to talk. For 45 minutes, they drew from their own experiences to present the most important issues facing refugees. One of their biggest talking points was that some refugees need more than the 90 days of assistance they get.

Throughout the whole visit, Manirakiza could tell Ashford’s staff was engaged.

“It was an eye-opening experience to meet with them, sit down and talk to them. They were eager to ask questions, to listen and to take notes.” Manirakiza said. “You could tell they really cared.”

Shafiq Jahish, another Nebraskan who attended the academy, took great pride in learning how to lobby and what he can and can’t do when advocating issues to the representatives.

“I hope to go to Lincoln and present our issues there,” Jahish said.

It was all part of the experience at the 2015 Migrant and Refugee Leadership Academy.

Every summer, refugees from around the country gather in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., for the academy. This past summer, 83 refugees and migrants, including four from Nebraska, were accepted to attend. The academy’s goal is “to lift up the voices of all migrants and refugees and empower them to become strong advocates for issues of importance to their communities.”

One big change to the academy this year was the decision to include migrants and asylees for the first time. The organization that runs the academy, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS) works with more than just refugees. Migrants and asylees are a big part of what they do. It didn’t make sense to exclude them.

“When you hear their stories, about kids and single mothers from Latin America fleeing drug wars,” said Fabio Lomelino, an outreach specialist with LIRS. “They are very similar to refugees’ stories.”

The hope is to create solidarity among the three groups that are all working towards the same goal: having a good life in America.

LIRS, a National Volunteer Agency, is a partner of Lutheran Family Services. Both Manirakiza and Jahish learned about the program through LFS. Manirakiza learned about it from his case manager while Jahish learned about it through his LFS AmeriCorps supervisor.

Lacey Studnicka, a development officer with Lutheran Family Services in Omaha, worked as Manirakiza’s case manager when he first arrived in the United States, and they have remained friends since. When she heard about the academy, she knew she had to tell Manirakiza about it.

“He was perfect for it,” Studnicka said.

Jahish found out about the academy from two people he worked with at AmeriCorps, a civil society program whose main goal is to help others and meet the needs of different communities. They had attended the academy in 2014. Jahish saw it as a great opportunity to go and improve his leadership skills and bring new skills back to his community.

This is the third consecutive summer LIRS has hosted the academy. It is modeled after another event that they run involving leaders of the Lutheran church. The hope behind starting this event was to protect refugees overseas and help refugees locally solve everyday problems and raise local refugee leaders to a national level, according to Lomelino, who facilitated much of the training during the academy.

The application process isn’t highly competitive or restrictive, but it has grown since the first year. This year, Lomelino estimates, for every two who applied, one was invited.

“We’re just looking for the right people,” Lomelino said.

During the application process, the coordinators of the academy simply want to know a little bit about the

All of the atendees at the 2015 Migrant and Refugee Leadership Academy. Manirakiza and Jahish stand next to each other, second row, fifth and sixth from the right. / Courtesy photo

All of the atendees at the 2015 Migrant and Refugee Leadership Academy. Manirakiza and Jahish stand next to each other, second row, fifth and sixth from the right. / Courtesy photo

refugees who attend and what work they’ve already done in their communities to stand out as leaders. Different refugees have different strengths and Lomelino wanted a wide variety of people: faith leaders, community leaders, storytellers and advocates.

Manirakiza is very much a storyteller and advocate. Jahish is a community leader.

Manirakiza is originally from Burundi and came to the United States in 2006 from the Mtendeli refugee camp in Tanzania. He spent 12 years—his entire childhood—in the camp before he finally got word he had been accepted into the United States.

Now a high school and college graduate, Manirakiza dreams of one day working for the United Nations in a refugee camp.

From 2011 until 2013, Manirakiza worked as a case manager for the Lutheran Family Services. He helped refugees from all different ethnicities to adjust to their new life. It was through his connections here that he found out about the academy.

Manirakiza is active, not just in his community, but in all refugee communities. His time as a case manager gave him experience working with people from all over the world. He organizes and hosts refugee cultural nights. Members of the community, refugees and non-refugees alike, join together for an evening of education and entertainment.

“He has an exceptional talent to share his story and vision in a short amount of time in a way that impacts and inspires people,” Studnicka said. “He is a refugee success story.”

At a church where Studnicka had asked Manirakiza to speak to a group of people, he told his entire story and vision in seven minutes.

Afterwards a woman approached him and asked him a question.

“How long has it been since you have seen your father?” she asked.

Manirakiza replied that it had been 14 years.

The woman responded that she wanted to pay for him to go home and see his family.

And she did.

Seven minutes was all it took for Manirakiza to inspire this woman. And she isn’t the only person he’s inspired

“He inspired me to apply for a grant to train refugees to tell their stories in an impactful way,” Studnicka said. “Of course, Dieudonne will help me with that project.”

Shafiq Jahish came to America in 2005 from Afghanistan as an exchange student. While here, he finished his last year of high school and learned English before returning to Afghanistan the following year.

“I wanted to do something for my country when I got back,” Jahish said.

The final day of the academy was spent developing community action plans to take back to their local communities and explaining why it’s important for migrants and refugees to work together toward common goals. / Courtesy photo

The final day of the academy was spent developing community action plans to take back to their local communities and explaining why it’s important for migrants and refugees to work together toward common goals. / Courtesy photo

He decided to help his country by serving as an interpreter for the U.S. Air Force. After eight years working as an interpreter, he got a special immigration visa to move to Omaha in June 2014.

Being in the United States for less than a year when he needed to apply, Jahish hadn’t gotten a lot of chances to stand out as a leader, but he showed an eagerness. He also believes that his special immigration visa helped him stand out.

The academy was packed full of skills-building to help the refugees stand out as active leaders in their communities.

The first day of the academy focused on networking and working on advocacy training. The morning session of the first day focused on how and why organizing is important and exercises to work on organizational skills. The afternoon session provided training on storytelling in an impactful way and advocacy training for the next day. The attendees were given an idea of what the visit to Capitol Hill would look like and specific legislation that directly related to their issues so that they were well-informed when meeting with the representatives.

The second day was the day the attendees went to the Washington, D.C., to meet with their representatives.

The final day of the academy was spent developing community action plans to take back to their local communities and explaining why it’s important for migrants and refugees to work together toward common goals.

Jahish enjoyed the chance to advocate to Ashford, but it wasn’t his favorite part. Jahish got the most out of the group sessions.

Attendees were split up into small groups and given situations in which they had to work together to find the best solution.

An example of a question might be a refugee woman and her kids are experiencing electrical issues in their house. How would you help them if you were their case manager?

Some of the solutions thrown forward included to simply move them, to reach out to the community and to find help for them and teach them how to find help.

“It was very interesting to me to hear what people from different ethnicities, different backgrounds thought,” Jahish said. “You got some ideas that you would never think of.”

Jahish brought back what he learned at the academy and is now trying to employ his new skills here. He wants to start a class that teaches the women in his community English and help them get out and involved in the community.

Lomelino runs a weekly webinar series that Jahish participates in meant to continue the training, present new advocacy needs and encourage attendees to be active leaders. Lomelino hopes that the academy serves as the means to an end by developing refugee leaders.

“I want this to become a community that is bigger than a three-day event,” Lomelino said. “Refugees are the best advocates we have. They can be inspirational, powerful speakers.”

The academy can serve as a transformational experience for refugees. Many come from countries where ordinary citizens can’t speak with politicians, they don’t get a say in the government. The academy offers them a chance to shake hands, sit down and talk with politicians about the issues facing their communities.

“It allows them to see themselves as part of American society,” Lomelino said. “It’s what makes America so interesting and powerful.”

Manirakiza took away a greater sense of empowerment and tools of how to get refugees voices heard. He learned how to stitch communities together and work on the common problems they all face.

The academy can serve as a transformational experience for refugees. Many come from countries where ordinary citizens can’t speak with politicians, they don’t get a say in the government. The academy offers them a chance to shake hands, sit down and talk with politicians about the issues facing their communities.

“It allows them to see themselves as part of American society,” Lomelino said. “It’s what makes America so interesting and powerful.”

Above all else, both Manirakiza and Jahish took away one big thing.

“I learned we are not alone,” Jahish said. “There are people fighting for us.”


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