Former Refugee Mentors New Leaders at World Refugee Day Academy: An Interview with Omar Bah

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Omar Bah, former refugee and World Refugee Day Academy facilitator
Omar Bah, former refugee and World Refugee Day Academy facilitator

On June 18-20th, LIRS will host World Refugee Day Academy, a three-day event for former refugees focusing on building advocacy, community organizing, and leadership skills. The 51 participants were selected through a highly competitive process for their leadership experience, strong ties to their local communities, and desire to mobilize for pro-refugee policies. The participants are a diverse and impressive group, coming from 27 states and representing 18 nationalities. Included in the 51 participants are two of last year’s outstanding attendees who will return this year to serve as facilitators during the Academy’s training sessions.

Today, we feature an interview between Erin Phelps, Grassroots Mobilization Intern, and facilitator Omar Bah, an accomplished author and journalist. Omar is a former refugee from The Gambia, and is involved as an activist for the local refugee community in his hometown of Providence, Rhode Island.

Erin Phelps (EP): Can you tell us about your background?

Omar Bah (OB): My name is Omar Bah, a torture survivor and former journalist, and refugee from The Gambia. I am the Founder and Executive Director of the Rhode Island-based Center for Refugee Advocacy & Support (CenRAS). I recently published the book, Africa’s Hell on Earth: The Ordeal of an African Journalist. I represent the state of Rhode Island at the Refugee Congress, hosted by the United Nations Refugee Agency. Previously, I worked and volunteered for many local agencies campaigning and raising awareness about refugee rights surrounding resettlement, housing, benefits and health-related issues. I currently serve on the boards of directors for the Childhood Lead Action Project, CommunityWorks Rhode Island, and African Alliance of Rhode Island. I am also a commissioner at the Commission for Health Advocacy & Equity, Social Equity Advisory Committee, and Providence Human Relations Commission. I hold a BA in Communication Studies with a minor in Political Science from the University of Rhode Island, a Master’s degree in Public Administration from Roger Williams University, and am currently in further graduate school at the Massachusetts School of Professional Psychology (MSPP). I obtained a certificate in Global Mental Health: Trauma & Refugee from the Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma.

EP: What are some of your greatest successes as a former refugee?

OB: My greatest success has been my ability to encourage and empower fellow refugees to have a voice. My efforts have been recognized by partners within the state [of Rhode Island] and by fellow refugees who look up to me and my agency for support. My interest in starting CenRAS stems from my local leadership and advocacy on these issues. When I first arrived as a refugee, I realized that many refugees get lost in the system and find it hard to access support services or the means by which to navigate the system. I felt there was a need for a second level of the resettlement process so that these refugees will progress in their quest to integrate into American society by providing a resource of continuity in the process. CenRAS currently runs on grants to operate an afterschool program, youth mentorship program, and healthy housing awareness. CenRAS also owns and operates a refugee-focused interpreting agency.

EP: What did you gain from last year’s World Refugee Day Academy?

OB: Attending last year’s training immensely re-shaped my grassroots advocacy and leadership ability. I am now more focused and organized in framing issues and engaging partners within my community. To that effect, my efforts have been greatly recognized both by local and state officials as well as partners within the refugee support system. The local press has also printed extensively about me and my views on refugee and immigrant policy-related issues. Funding partners have also been tremendously touched by what I do, and as a result I have begun to see their interest in supporting my agency’s work.

EP: What was most memorable about last year’s World Refugee Day Academy?

OB: My most memorable moment during last year’s event was meeting with both Senators from my state. Before leaving my state, the local press had published about my trip and thus the Senators highly anticipated my visit. I was amazed at the amount of time they created, and the level of interest they showed on supporting issues pertaining to refugees. I told them that I never thought in my life that I would ever have a country to call home, after being expelled from my own country, not to mention sit with a Senator of the United States at the same table. I told them that such an opportunity was both fulfilling and important to me. I thanked them for allowing me to thank this great country.

Since then, I have been in touch with these Senators and their staff, and received support from them. Therefore, I would therefore call upon those participating in this year’s event to make good use of their time with their congressional delegates. In as much as you ask from them, please thank them from the bottom of your hearts. They have done us a great deal. Furthermore, please follow up. The contacts you make by attending the World Refugee Day Academy are just to facilitate efforts for greater opportunities for you. So follow up and continue on what you started.

EP: What brings you back to the Academy this year, and what do you hope to achieve?

OB: I am attending the World Refugee Academy as a one of two trainers for the group. Both of us are returning after having had the opportunity to receive training during last year’s event. I hope to be able to utilize both my skills from last year’s training and my work within my community in Rhode Island to share with the World Refugee Academy participants. I recognize the fact that they are all accomplished in their respective communities. Therefore, I hope to be part of efforts to inspire and energize these leaders.

LIRS is honored to be hosting outstanding former refugees like Omar, who each have a unique story and play dynamic roles in supporting, leading, and connecting refugee communities across the country. Click here for more information about World Refugee Day Academy and please contact Folabi Olagbaju at folagbaju@lirs.org.

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