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Dayton program mentors new leaders

Migwe Kimemia and Yahayh Khamis
Migwe Kimemia, left, and Yahayh Khamis Photo: Jon Krieg / AFSC

In the first interview below, Migwe Kimemia, who directs AFSC's work in Dayton, talks about the program's leadership training and civic engagement work with young people from Africa. Migwe talks about the story of Yahayh Khamis, who describes his own journey in the second interview. For more information about AFSC's work in Dayton, please contact Migwe.

Q: Please tell us about Yahayh’s background, how he got involved, and your perspective on his leadership.

Migwe: Yahayh has been a very progressive person since he came here as a youth. He was confused at first being here. His family is still back home. He ran away from a very hostile environment but upon coming to Dayton, he found AFSC was more hospitable. We extend hospitality to young people as we’re organizing youth. When I first saw him, he was very new here and didn’t know much.

Now he has grown to be a transformational leader, leading his own community. He’s the president of the Sudanese Community of Dayton. We’ve seen him grow and grow, and then he was hired by a Chinese company which invested in the former General Motors facility here in Dayton. He has been promoted to team leader and taken to China for training. That’s unusual to see a refugee going to China for training!

He told me the story about this, how people in China were coming to touch him. They’d never seen a black man. So it was interesting to hear his stories. But his journey is very inspiring for other young people, and that’s why we want to lift up his story so that other people can see and have hope -- that you never give up on your dreams.

Q: So Yahayh really does represent what you’re trying to do in your program work?

Migwe: Yes, this is an example of what youth leadership is all about. We believe in nurturing them when they come, when they don’t know where to start. We mentor, and we have an advisory committee that is very involved. We act as mentors for youth, and we also train them to become leaders and responsible citizens in this country.

So that’s what we see, and we want to inspire other young people, especially college students who come here and they still are confused about this country, especially in this environment where racism is high. They feel disconnected and left out. So AFSC is filling a huge gap so they can feel loved and inspired to achieve their goals and dreams.

Q: What are some of the strengths which the refugees bring which help them deal with the challenges they face here?

Migwe: Refugees have come from a collective culture where they have a sense of social responsibility. They help each other, raise money together, live together – that’s their biggest strength. Individualism is not part of African culture, so they don’t know that, it’s a foreign concept. They believe in living together.

So AFSC is helping them understand civic engagement from a political perspective – how they can influence change when they are here. How to use their collective power, their collective voice to become change agents for their community.

Migwe Kimemia shares about AFSC Dayton program work with the Midwest Executive Committee.

Q: One of the things Yahayh has said that, where he’s from, government is something to run away from. Whereas in the US, we like to think that government has the potential to be a positive force for people as, for example, with the city’s Welcome Dayton plan.

Migwe: Because the government is used there to oppress certain groups, and that’s why most of them are fearful of government. So part of our work is to train them that civil liberties in America are real, that government is here because people voted for them. It’s our democratic culture where we hold our government accountable.

When we at AFSC say we “speak truth to power,” we mean that people are paying taxes so that government can function and contribute to society. But when the government in not accountable, then citizens have the responsibility to hold the government accountable. That is part of civic engagement we teach them

Their fear of police, for instance – which is the closest government they know – is out, and we’ve had a very positive relationship between police and community in Dayton. We’ve not heard of problems, and our community policing is one of the best parts of Welcome Dayton.

Q: Anything else I didn’t ask about?

Migwe: It’s a blessing you came to hear stories in person. Stories are the most powerful weapon in fighting hate. When people hear others’ stories, hopefully they can be empathetic rather than demonizing a certain group because they look different or think differently. So this is why we are here. Young people are the best people for building bridges for the future. We believe strongly that the youth are the future, and we can bring this country and the rest of the world together.

Midwest Executive Committee member Ta-Yu Yang and Yahayh Khamis talk about AFSC work in Dayton.

Interview with Yahayh Khamis

Q: Would you please introduce yourself?

Yahayh: My name is Yahayh Khamis. I’m originally from Sudan. As you know, Sudan is the largest country in Africa. I’m from the west side of north Sudan, Darfur; that’s where I was born and raised. I’ve been in Dayton since 2009.

Q: Migwe said to me that you’re the leader of the Sudanese community in Dayton. Would you please describe that?

Yahayh: When I came in 2009, first of all, I met Migwe. He told me a lot about the community. Four years later, we decided to form the Sudanese community group. I approached him, and he explained a lot of stuff. We formed the Sudanese Community of Dayton. They elected me as president and have since reelected me twice. We’re now in the process again of elections.

We’re moving our office here to rent [at AFSC]. We bring new faces to the community, and now we’ll have a good place; we’ll open here next month.

Q: Please tell me about the work the Sudanese Community of Dayton does.

Yahayh: We’re doing a lot. Because most of the Sudanese who’ve come here without family, they’re single, some of them are just kids and their moms. We’ve done a lot of translations, social work, integration to the community. Telling them how to get benefits, especially social services, any kind of services they need – that’s what we do mostly. We try to connect them with other communities where they can get the help they need.

Q: What are some of the challenges people face in coming from Sudan to Dayton?

Yahayh: When they get here, they don’t know how to speak English. Language can be very hard for them, but often kids get better. If you can’t communicate with people, it’s very hard to get integrated into the community or get the help you need.

Q: How many Sudanese people live in Dayton?

Yahayh: I don’t know the exact numbers right now, but likely over 200.

Q: How welcoming has Dayton been? I know there’s the Welcome Dayton plan, but how have people experienced life here?

Yahayh: Absolutely, it’s pretty tough. But so far, it’s a good place to live. The City of Dayton is working hard to connect with us, but it’s very hard sometimes.

Q: Would you please talk about the role that AFSC and Migwe played in helping you develop your leadership?

Yahayh: Thank you for that question. It’s really my great honor to be on the AFSC Advisory Committee for getting trained for this organization. It’s helped me a lot to be a leader today because when I come to the training and get papers and read about what kinds of initiatives you need to be a leader – that’s helped me a lot to be a leader today.

Finally, the City of Dayton has recognized me as an excellent leader. Migwe made the recommendation to the City of Dayton, and that gave me a lot of strength to do the best I can to help my community.

Q: Congratulations, that’s a tremendous honor.

Yahayh: Thank you.

Q: What sorts of challenges have you experienced as a leader? How have you grown?

Yahayh: We face a lot of challenges. We have families to take care of, we have to keep working, and it’s a challenge. But God created me to do this work. I face the challenge of learning things. Personally, I have a lot of family back home to take care of, as well. My mom, sisters and brother, my daughter, my wife. Being nine years here without family, being by myself here, that’s a challenge.

I’m in the process now of bringing my family here. I got an approval letter, but I’m waiting to be interviewed by the consulate in Khartoum.

Q: I hope that happens very soon.

Yahayh: I hope so, too.

Q: What are some of the strengths of the Sudanese community? What helps people get through these challenges?

Yahayh: Most of the Sudanese are here to work, to take care of themselves, and do the right thing. When they go to the public areas or some kind of official place, it’s scary. Personally, I grew up in a country where there’s no rule, there’s nothing. The word “government” means they’ll take from you or kill you. Most of the people, from my perspective, when they say leadership, organizing, coming together to do something, they think it’s government trying to get in to take something. These are things they’re scared about.

Q: That’s something you’ve overcome, obviously.

Yahayh: I’ve overcome a lot of things. In my country, where I grew up, when they say “government,” you have to get away from them. Because that’s how we’ve been treated. But finally, I realized that here is totally different because your voice has power. If you bring to them your voice, your voice can be heard. That’s a good thing here.

To make sure our people understand this thing, it’s been very hard for us, but we try every day, getting more training and trying to help them as leaders to understand. Especially kids, because I know it’s very hard for older people to change. But young and small kids can change quickly and be integrated into the community to be leaders.

Q: Anything I didn’t ask that you’d like to share?

Yahayh: One thing I’ve tried to share in this interview is that coming from where I’ve been to today, I’m so grateful. I was born in a place where there is nothing. I’m not just focusing on myself here in Dayton or the U.S. I’m doing my best to help change things even for people back home. I’ve gone through many leadership trainings, and I figured out that people back home need a lot of leadership, as well.

My home town, where I was born, even to now – there are no better schools, there’s no electricity, there’s nothing – and they don’t know what’s going on around the world. These are very challenging things. I’m trying my best to create a program here to connect with people in my home country where we can work together so we can develop leadership, academic and some other kind of things, so people can understand. A lot of things I learned there, when I get here, it’s totally different. So to help people understand that is very hard for us, but I’m trying my best.

Q: Thank you, and best wishes.