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She Works to Improve Lives of Refugees (Ajongo) 8/9/17  08/09/17 12:44:13 PM Printer Friendly VersionPrinter Friendly Version

Elizabeth Ajongo gives a primer on immigrants and refugees at one of Douglas County’s quarterly Brown Bagger meetings.

She Works to Improve Lives of Refugees
By Julien R. Fielding
The Daily Record

This year Elizabeth Ajongo, Sudanese Cultural Ambassador and Refugee Juvenile Justice Advocate Coordinator for Heartland Family Services, was one of 10 recipients of the Young Black & Influential Award. And it’s easy to see why.
Born in Aweil, South Sudan, she, her husband and their son fled to Egypt in 1999 to escape the Sudanese Civil War.
“The Civil War broke out in southern Sudan,” she explained. “Because of insecurity in southern Sudan at the time, we came to northern Sudan. It was a long journey that started with taking off from the city to a long distance remote village by foot. After being in the village for almost a year, we decided to catch a train in a nearby city to move to northern Sudan. We tried our best to go to the north, but the government wasn’t good and we were Christians.”
In 2001, she applied through the United Nations to come to the United States. They were resettled in Omaha, where she’s been having a real impact on the lives of refugees.
“[At Heartland Family Services], I am a recruiter, hiring manager and program coordinator,” she said. “I do recruitment and hiring of my staff members [known as Refugee Advocates]. I offer training and supervision meetings to refugee advocates and practicum students. I also do case management and support my clients by attending appointments or court hearings with them. A big portion of my job, though, is to conduct home visits.”
Often refugees don’t make it to their appointments, so she goes to their homes to explain to them what they need to do and why it is important to show up for an appointment. It’s making a difference – the number of refugee youths being detained has been reduced – but there is still a lot of work to do in the refugee community to tackle the issue of recidivism, to prevent refugee youths from going back and forth to the detention center.
“Our community is falling apart,” she said. “We have ongoing cases of truancy and a growing gang problem. In addition to truancy and gang issues, there are other social issues in refugee communities. Many refugee parents came from refugee camps and they find it difficult to parent their kids in this country; system and cultural difference is the biggest barrier.
“Often you will find single moms who have a number of kids, but they work long hours to support these kids. The downside of working long hours is that their kids lack parental supervision. Many are suffering from trauma; they were traumatized back home, and they are still getting traumatized by the bad news from back home. Most of the time, the parents talk about the bad news in front of their children. As a result, their children get traumatized as well.”
Ajongo knows, firsthand, these problems. “I came here as a refugee. I was at home, isolated from community activities or engagements, but taking care of my oldest son and my unborn baby; I actually got pregnant with my second child a month after my arrival in Omaha.
“Once I got out into the community, after just a few months, I was so different. Like myself in the past, many refugee moms are so isolated from community activities and engagements. Some are not that isolated because they work outside the home but, as I mentioned earlier, many refugee moms are single and work long hours. Working long hours is not a bad thing, but these refugee moms need time for themselves and their children.”
When asked to describe herself, the words “helper” and “learner” came easily.
“I came here with the basics in English,” she said. “My father was an English teacher. He was educated in Leeds, England, but he got a lot of pressure by the government to come back to Sudan. I went to university, but couldn’t finish because of the Sudanese Civil War.”
After she arrived in Omaha, she began making up for lost time. In 2007, she went back to school. From Metropolitan Community College, she earned a human services associate’s degree and a certificate in chemical dependency in 2010. She then attended the University of Nebraska at Omaha to earn a bachelor’s in social work in 2014. She is currently completing her master’s degree in leadership and coaching from Bellevue University. She hopes to complete that later this year.
 “My future goal is getting a PhD and establishing a personal business, but I don’t want to leave Heartland Family Services,” she said. “It’s a good place to work. In the future, I will continue to work for Heartland Family Services while running my personal business.”
Although she was instrumental in developing and implementing the Refugee Juvenile Justice program at Heartland Family Services, she said that she would like to expand her work in the community.
“I don’t want it to be one focus, but to be all-inclusive,” she said. This means health care, education, interpretation services and more. (She herself volunteers as an interpreter at church and in the community – she speaks Dinka and Arabic languages.)
Before coming to Heartland Family Services, Ajongo worked with the Refugee Empowerment Center, and served as board president from 2011 to 2014. She has also worked with African and Asian refugees in school readiness and tobacco-free education.
Family is important to Ajongo. She is married with three children – two boys and a girl. Her husband, she said, is good at fixing things and before working at Rotella’s, he had his own business fixing TVs, computers, cars and watches. Her oldest, who is 18, follows in his footsteps. Her other children are 15 and 7.
Ajongo credits her parents for her success. “My mom was amazing,” she said. “She was always pushing us to go to school. She wanted us to get our education. If you go to school, you get more opportunities. You can become a policy maker, and communicate your point.
“When all of my children are grown or old enough, I’m going to work with the UN. I need to make a difference in the world, and I like to encourage women in my community to be inclusive and to inspire others.”  
There’s no doubt that she’s doing just that.
The mission of Heartland Family Services is to strengthen individuals and families in the community through education, counseling and support services. Founded in 1875, the organization serves more than 35,000 individuals of all ages each year from more than 15 locations in east central Nebraska and southwest Iowa. Its 50 programs provide critical human services to the individuals and families in the following focus areas: Child & Family, Counseling & Prevention, and Housing & Financial Stability.
For more information, go to http://heartlandfamilyservice.org. It is located at 2101 South 42nd St.
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