Today, I am delighted to share an interview with Wilmot Collins, a former refugee from Liberia and dynamic advocate of new Americans. In this interview, Wilmot, a newly elected LIRS board member, tells how the Ebola epidemic in Liberia suddenly became personal for him in his home state of Montana.
This interview was carried out over email by Juliet Sohns, LIRS Grassroots Mobilization Intern.
Juliet Sohns (JS): How did you become involved in refugee advocacy?
Wilmot Collins (WC): I entered the United States as a refugee; even though I had a seamless transition I noticed a lot of other refugees were struggling to navigate the web of forms and information. I knew I could help, and when the UNHCR [The UN Refugee Agency] contacted me to be a part of their Refugee Advisory Board, I knew I would be able to utilize my knowledge, skills and abilities to help other refugees. Presently I am a board member of “Refugee Center Online.” We have a team of people in various states that help refugees with their various processes.
JS: You were elected to the LIRS Board of Directors. Your term will start in 2015. Congrats! How do you see your role on the Board affecting your leadership with the larger refugee community?
WC: In order to adequately advocate for refugees in the larger communities, you must have the necessary contacts and joining the Board of Directors for LIRS I believe would provide me with the much needed tools and contacts to continue actively advocating for refugees in the smaller communities as well.
JS: You are a well-known leader on immigration issues in Montana: you’ve participated in LIRS’s World Refugee Day Academy as both a facilitator and an attendee, have written op-eds on immigration issues, and elected officials have sought your input. How do you see yourself engaging with immigration issues and LIRS’s World Refugee Day Academy in the future?
WC: Whatever I am involved with, I tend to put my heart and soul into it. I would hope that as a board member of LIRS I would continue to stay active with those issues that affect refugees, and that the Board would continue to use me at the World Refugee Day Academy.
JS: You were born in Liberia, a country which has been affected by the Ebola outbreak since March, 2014. As you monitor the situation in Liberia, what is the community in Montana doing to support loved ones who are impacted by the epidemic?
WC: I didn’t wait for the community to act; I decided to act because the Ebola outbreak became personal. My wife and I were getting ready to settle down as empty-nesters when my niece and nephew [who were visiting from Liberia] couldn’t return to Liberia. My niece and nephew visit us in Montana every summer, but this summer was different with the Ebola outbreak. They could not return, so we now have two more kids. When my sister [mother of the two children] came to visit, I decided to use her experience as a hospital administrator to inform my Helena community about the Ebola outbreak and use the same occasion to raise some funds for “Friends of Liberia,” a group of Peace Corps that were in Liberia that decided to help with the Ebola outbreak.
I single-handedly contacted the various news media and organized a program at the St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, and for such a short notice (10 days) we were able to raise a little over $1,700.00. The program was a success; I am still getting calls from people as to how they could help. My sister’s hospital saw the first case of Ebola and with her experience as a registered nurse and a hospital administrator, she provided the community a wealth of information and laid some of their fears to rest. Please read this newspaper article for more information.
JS: What are the main issues that you want to address that are unique to the Liberian refugee community in Montana?
WC: I sincerely wish we had a larger Liberian community in Montana; the sad truth is that 90% of the Liberian refugee community [in Montana] belongs to my family. But that is exactly why I am more passionate to help others, because as my mother always told us, “Things done by halves are never done right.” What she was saying is whatever you want to do, put your heart and soul into it and do it right.