Helping Refugees and Immigrants, Finding Fulfillment
“…These things happened not just because of racism or sexism, but because of ignorance, and [we] help them go beyond that ignorance, to build peace.”
Wanjiru Kamau is the founder of the African Refugee and Immigrant Foundation, which facilitates the effective transition of African immigrants to American society and supports their productive, sustainable integration into their new homeland. She won a 2011 Purpose Prize for her work with the foundation. The Purpose Prize honors someone who made a change late in their career to work for social good. Prior to moving to Washington DC to found the African Refugee and Immigrant Foundation, Wanjiru Kamau was a university administrator and adjunct professor in State College, Pennsylvania.
Blog and Social Media Manager Caroline Anderson interviewed Wanjiru about how her work and how it contributes to peacebuilding.
What inspired you to change your career? How did you make the decision to do so?
The problem presented itself to me. When I met with African refugees and immigrants in State College I noticed that some Rwandese people who had been resettled in the US were adjusting badly. They had not lived in urban areas of Africa, and the United States was very different from their homes. I felt that they needed help in adjusting to the United States, and that I could help them. My graduate work was in multicultural education, which sensitized me to valuing difference and allowing differences to exist so that we can all learn from one another. From this sensitivity I was in a much better position to educate immigrants and felt compelled to help them adjust to their new home while retaining their identity. My background in mental health also helped. These refugees had had their emotions injured from devastating wars, family loss, and separation, so learning how to deal with these traumas was also a part of adjusting.
Can you describe some of your work?
The African Refugee and Immigrant Foundation (AIRF) became the bridge between the two cultures. I have lived in the U.S. and in Africa, and I mediate between the two cultures. I find that people in the United States only know about hunger, malnutrition, and war in Africa. This also makes it harder for immigrants to integrate. People don’t know anything about them, so it is necessary to train caregivers – mental health workers, and other professionals who work with the immigrants – in African cultural sensitivity. We also try to educate teachers, hospital workers, and ordinary Americans.
In addition, we help Africans who are from different countries to better understand each other, train parents to get adjusted more quickly so that they can understand their children (who often acculturate faster than their parents and guardians), and mediate domestic disputes. The problem of domestic violence is a particularly important one, because what is reportedly acceptable in some African cultures is not here in the United States. We have established a Council of Elders, consisting of people from different countries who can mediate disputes and cases of domestic violence and explain what behavior is the norm in the United States. We always make sure to have a man and a woman in the meetings if the trouble is between a husband and wife, and also ensure the mediators are from the same countries as the disputants. Both of these conditions are important so that everyone is heard and understood.
Where does the Foundation do its work? How do people find out about the services you provide?
The organization caters to people in the DC metro area, but we also get calls from around the country, and from refugee camps in African countries. Our constituents are mainly low income, and our mission is to help make them productive in their new home. Physical contact is very important to our work, so we focus on the DC metro area where people can meet face to face.
Constituents discover us through word of mouth, on our website, on Facebook, and soon on Twitter. But most are not computer savvy, so it’s mostly word of mouth and referrals.
How do you see yourself contributing to peacebuilding through the work of the African Immigrant and Refugee Foundation?
When people are crossing borders there is so much need to understand one another. The work we do helps with understanding on both sides. Endowing newcomers with cultural and linguistic skills empowers them with peacebuilding tools. When we understand one another we can talk to one another and reduce stereotypes. It may seem that we are building peace indirectly, but I think we are doing it directly in a variety of ways. For example, these immigrants are often products of violence, and we help to restore their mental health and find peace. Our foundation has mediated between Hutu and Tutsi individuals to help them forgive each another. Even though our focus is not peace, we end up building peace. Last November we had a conference and taught the youth about African restorative justice. We showed them how to use restorative justice in cases of school bullying. Immigrant children are bullied a lot because they are different, and we taught them ways of responding and of combating ignorance. This helps to create peace. All of this builds peace – if you don’t have personal peace you can negatively impact so many others.
What we have been trying to do is to have the very refugees who have been victims forgive those they have left behind, the conflicts they have left behind. We try to explain to them that these things happened not just because of racism or sexism but because of ignorance, and to help them go beyond that ignorance, to build peace.
What is your favorite success story that has come out of the Foundation’s work?
There are many stories, but one of the most meaningful is about a conflict between a Congolese family and an African American family. This is an especially fraught relationship because the two groups (Africans and African Americans) look alike but are culturally different – a lot needs to be done to work through and understand these differences.
The story began in 2004 with a fight between the children of two families who were neighbors, one Congolese and one African American. The African American kids could not understand why the Congolese family did not speak English and hence, play with them. They started fighting and the police (all of whom were white) came. When the police arrived, the African American teenagers blamed the situation on the mother of the Congolese children, who could not speak English. The mother was arrested and it was a very bad situation. What we did in response was train the police that there was a population in their community who were different, and who might not speak English. We worked with them to increase their cultural sensitivity to this situation. You cannot just assume that people who look the same are culturally alike. We helped the police better understand these cultural barriers. It just leaves you wanting more to teach people how to understand one another.
Looking back over 10 years of the Foundation’s work and your own contributions, what have you learned?
Any older person who would like to make a new start should turn to something they are passionate about. Doing this will really give them a love of life. The kind of successes I have had with youth and families have excited and inspired me. There are ways to find great satisfaction that are not measured by money. Particularly when you helping others, I have found that it releases you from your personal prison. You can help yourself by helping others. I would encourage others to find some service to do. After all, we are here in the world to serve other people.
Find out more about the work of the African Immigrant and Refugee Foundation.