Better than an Oscar: Refugee women in Utah recognized for self-reliance and individual accomplishments

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Masagid Abdalla a refugee from Sudan has her picture taken with her new award of achievement during the Women of the World 8th annual award ceremony at the Salt Lake County building in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 8, 2018. The event is a celebration of successes including educational, service, and employment milestones by refugee women.

To the 25 honorees at Saturday’s Self-Reliance Award ceremony at the Salt Lake County Government Center, the recognition was more valuable — and more personal — than an Oscar.

The refugees hailed from Afghanistan and Iraq, Sudan and Somalia, Kuwait and India, Congo and the Central African Republic, but what they had in common was the ability to persevere amid almost insurmountable obstacles.

Each framed certificate honored an individual accomplishment — from learning English, to finishing high school, to finding and holding a job, to supporting a family, and lifting others out of poverty.

This is the ninth such awards ceremony sponsored by Women of the World, a nonprofit organization founded by Utahn Samira Harnish “to support refugee women to achieve self-reliance, a voice in the community, and economic success.”

The foundation helps refugees by providing training in conversational English, ensuring physical and mental health, developing job skills in language, service or creative industries, offering educational opportunities, and advocating for them at every stage of their resettlement.

At the first ceremony, WOW gave out two awards. This time, it was 10 times that many.

“We give awards to recognize these women’s accomplishments,” Harnish said Saturday, “and to motivate others to be independent.”

Many refugee women suffer from PTSD from living in war-torn countries and observing (as well as experiencing) violence. Some say they would like to collect Social Security or other government aid.

But Harnish doesn’t think that is a long-term solution — she wants them to be independent and able to stand on their own.

And some in their home country didn’t work outside the home because their husbands made enough money to support the family.

In the U.S., their husbands often don’t have that kind of income, she said. But even if they do, staying home without speaking the language or having a support group can be isolating. The women often become too dependent on their children, who are learning English in schools.

The awards ceremony, Harnish said, provides a powerful platform to “celebrate women’s success.”

Take Masagid Abdalla, originally from Sudan, whose certificate noted that her “persistence, determination and hard work are inspiring.”

The graceful 21-year-old fled that war-ravaged country with her parents and sibling when she was a child. They lived for five years in Libya before moving to a refugee camp in Egypt and then finally to Utah.

Here, Abdalla watched her mother work hard to build a life, which now includes a flourishing catering business. The daughter finished her secondary education at Cottonwood High School and is now studying at Salt Lake Community College and working at nursing home. She hopes to become a dentist.

“It’s been a dream,” she said, “to come to America.”

Rosette Rwamigiho of the Congo was recognized for “keeping her family fed, clothed and sheltered … [for providing] the strength of love and the power of the female at the front of the family.”

The ebullient mother spent five years with her children in Uganda after losing her husband, sister and business to the war back home. About five years ago, she arrived in Utah, speaking very little English and with no idea how to navigate this country.

Not long after arriving, Rwamigiho lost her personal documents and so turned to Harnish for help.

She went to the WOW office and before she knew it, Harnish helped her find the papers and much more. She signed up for English lessons, got a job at LDS Humanitarian Services, and now is working on an assembly line for Merit Medical.

“God sent her to us,” the energetic woman said with emotion.

Pamela Atkinson, looking out at more than 150 attendees, many in multicolored dresses and hijabs (Muslim head-coverings), some with children in tow, celebrated their accomplishments.

But also just their presence.

“Refugees [like you],” the tireless Salt Lake City-based activist declared, “enrich our country.”

Many followed the speeches with a recognizably American act — they took selfies with their award.

And then there was dancing.