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World Refugee Day is recognized each year on June 20 as a day that honors the strength and bravery of those who are forced to flee their home countries and recognizes the difficulties that they experience while integrating into another.

For some Titans, providing support for refugees in and outside of Wisconsin goes beyond World Refugee Day–it’s something they dedicate themselves to daily through their careers, studies and community work.

Using past experience to help others

Ayak Deng ’21

Ayak Deng came to the United States as a refugee from Sudan at the young age of 7 and has spent most of her life in Oshkosh.

After attending school within the Oshkosh Area School District, she went on to graduate from the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh in 2021 with a degree in anthropology and minor in women and gender studies.

Like many students, she was unsure about what she wanted to do for a career after graduation. But after some assistance from UW Oshkosh Women’s Center Director Alicia Johnson, she was able to begin a fulfilling career as a multicultural outreach navigator for the Oshkosh Area School District.

“Alicia Johnson brought this role to my attention. She helped me find my path,” Deng said.

As multicultural outreach navigator, Deng works with refugee students and their families to help new arrivals better integrate into the school system and the community. She also assists them with finding resources within the community.

“I am the first point of contact from the school district that new families meet,” she said. “I help enroll and prepare students for school by providing school supplies and connecting them to organizations that provide other resources they may need.”

Deng said she is able to use her own experiences to empathize with those first arriving into the area and can better understand their needs as they grow accustomed to their new community.

“I arrived in this country as a refugee and attended K-12 in the Oshkosh Area School District. Growing up in this system, I feel I have the tools and experience to serve students and families with refugee backgrounds.”

“I understand the feeling of being new to this country, speaking little to no English. I feel like I get the opportunity to fill the needs and roles I once had and needed as a child,” she said.

Building community support

Yessra Sankari ’22

After graduating from UWO in 2022 with a master’s degree in public administration, Yessra Sankari of Oshkosh began her role as Afghan refugee program coordinator within the Bureau of Refugee Programs for the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families.

In this role, Sankari collaborates with other refugee program coordinators to assess needs from community partners throughout Wisconsin and empower communities to better support residents with refugee backgrounds.

This is done by providing funds to local organizations to help provide resources and aid to refugee families.

“The Bureau of Refugee Programs receives funding from the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is then awarded to local community programs through a competitive application process. Local organizations in the Fox Valley receive this funding, which implement programs, such as school tutoring, assistance gaining employment, health promotion and transportation assistance,” Sankari said.

Although she hasn’t been in her position long, this isn’t the first time she’s had a job that involved the betterment of refugees in the community. Prior to her current career, she also worked with the Oshkosh Area School District as a refugee youth mentoring program manager for three years.

“Being an immigrant at a young age, I can sympathize with the scenario that many refugees are facing. Moving to a new country and having to learn the language and culture is challenging in itself, while still having the expectations that others have, and most often with less resources,” she said. “The process is very daunting without assistance.”

Sankari has continued to work in this field because she considers the work to be extremely rewarding and she knows she can make a difference in the lives of those who need it.

“My belief is that an individual does not work in this sort of field unless they find it rewarding. The situations can be challenging due to the multifaceted nature of social programs. My previous experiences in working with refugee families directly has shown me the first-hand impacts from the programs that the Bureau of Refugee Programs supports. Knowing the positive effects of the programs is rewarding for me and continues to drive my passion for the work I do,” she said.

Studying refugee migration, impact

Angela Subulwa

Angela Subulwa, UWO director of international studies and associate professor of geography, has centered her research around the migration of refugees, the geopolitical impacts and how refugees and their hosts renegotiate their collective sense of place.

“Understanding experiences of displacement reveals the deep (and multi-generational) costs of war and violence. Refugees’ narratives provide critical commentaries on the impact of the way power operates globally,” Subulwa said.

Outside of her research work, she does Oshkosh community work with SEPO Zambia, an organization that assists refugees with accessing resources and often serves as a mediator as refugees navigate institutions and bureaucracies that were not built for them. The organization also work to support refugees and their hosts throughout Western Zambia.

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