I attended a two day workshop in Atlanta this week called “Inclusive Leadership in Refugee Resettlement: Local and Global Perspectives.” This was part of the 18th Annual Global Conference of the International Leadership Association, which was held in Atlanta this past week. The theme was “The Dynamics of Inclusive Leadership.”
It was awesome. One of my favorite things about Atlanta is the city of Clarkston, which has been described as “the most diverse one square mile in America” by Time magazine. There are over 40 nationalities in this community that was once the hub for the KKK. This neighborhood has many apartment complexes and has become a location where people who come into the country as refugees are resettled. Lutheran Services of Georgia, in particular has been responsible for many of the resettlements in this neighborhood.
When I practiced law, I did some volunteer work in this community. However, in my first year at Candler School of Theology, I also worked in Clarkston, tutoring refugee children. Since then, this community is one of the places where I bring the scholars from the Youth Theological Initiative to teach them on immigration and resettlement.
“The United Nations reports that 1 in every 122 persons on the planet is either a refugee or an internally displaced person, and that half of the 60 million displaced persons in the world are children.”
We watched “The Crossing” a 2015 film by George Kurain about the Syrian refugee crisis. There was a panel discussion of Refugee leaders at the Clarkston Community Center and finally issue focused small group discussions. I facilitated a small group on “Religious Contexts and Organizations.” We addressed the lack of refugee leaders at the negotiation table for things that affect them in their communities.
There was a gentleman from Syria who recently came with his family and a Lebanese family was hosting them. It presented an opportunity to be a “cultural broker.” Help and friendship looks like helping get driver’s license, get the kids in school, find a job, furnish an apartment and help the family to learn English.
There were many good people, doing really good work, with the refugees. It warmed my heart to see all these “good” people helping and supporting this community. But there was a serious problem, in my humble opinion.
My mind went back to growing up in Nigeria, post colonization. Yes, Nigerians were leading but the impact of the British was still felt everywhere. It was the same with this conference. There were many people who have worked intensely with the refugee community but they were mostly white men and women who had a heart for the refugee community and had made great strides in that community. But, good leadership is generative.
In the next 10 years, I want to see many more refugee leaders attending such a conference as this one. I want to see them working side by side the white volunteers/community builders who have been working in that community for so long. I want them to be true partners. There is something patronizing about white people working in such a community and there are no leaders from that community. Good leadership is not paternalistic. The visual of all these wonderful, dedicated and compassionate “white people” doing good work, for the benefit of the black and brown skinned refugees, who were mostly not present, was a message by itself.
Do not get me wrong. Every single person I met at this conference was a true giver, and openly appreciated and valued the refugees. However, they themselves were honest that there was a lack of generative leadership in this community. There are many reasons for this including language and education but it is a problem that must be a priority.
A couple of the refugee leaders present at the panel discussion were Omar Shekhey, the Executive Director of the Somali American Community Center and Hussein Mohamed, the director of Sagal Radio Services. This radio station broadcasts in six languages: Bhutanese Nepali, Somali, Afaan-Oromo, Arabic, English, and Swahili. You can listen online at www.sagalradio.org. This is a community-based radio station that offers educational tools, cultural information and public service announcements. I also enjoyed meeting a powerful lady, Awaz Jabari, who runs a microenterprise program with the Partnership for Community Action in Clarkston.
Kudos to these folks who are doing everything they know to empower their own people in their own community. My heart is also grateful to the others who have focused on, and made the refugee community part of their own life’s work.
By the way, no longer do we refer to this particular community as “refugees” but as