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Paying it forward: Rochester nonprofit provides refugees with support, a chance to give back

ROCHESTER, Minn. (FOX47) -- When Awing [Elizabeth] Mayor first arrived in Minnesota, she had never seen snow before.

It was November of 2002 that she had left Sudan, resettling in the United States as a refugee.

“It was difficult because I came from a country that is very hot,” she said. “We don’t have snow.”

Despite the initial shock, she quickly received a warm welcome. She was met at the airport by members of the Minnesota Council of Churches, who helped sponsor her resettlement. They brought hats, coats and jackets.

Years later, she is working to give that same warm welcome to refugees and other immigrants coming into the community.

Awing [Elizabeth] Mayor works at IMAA as an employment counselor.

The Intercultural Mutual Assistance Association, or IMAA, is a Rochester-based nonprofit that focuses on "building bridges between cultures." The organization helps connect new members of the community with services such as healthcare, employment, transportation, daycare, translation and more.

Mayor is originally from South Sudan, but had been studying and living in Sudan. She said she had to leave due to discrimination.

“I was in a university there and then me and my colleagues were targeted,” Mayor said. “They said we were involved in some kind of political issues, which we were not.”

Mayor said she heard about the IMAA from many members of the community, who said that whatever she needed, IMAA could help.

She said when she moved to Rochester, IMAA helped her get her first job in the United States.

Despite having studied economics previously, Mayor said she decided to study social work at Winona State University because she wanted to help people. Now, she works at IMAA as an employment counselor.

“Everyday you meet people with different experience, different backgrounds," she said. "You learn a lot. I had the opportunity to help and touch some of the clients lives."

Rawhi Said works as a project coordinator at IMAA. Like Mayor, he came to Minnesota as a refugee and now works to give back to his community. When war broke out in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Said and his family had to leave their home country and live in a refugee camp in Croatia while they waited for the paperwork to be approved for them to resettle. In December of 1993, they received the paperwork to be sponsored in Rochester.

“It was a cold, cold day,” he said. “But we came.”

Although Said was only about 2 years old at the time, he said his parents always told him stories growing up to remind him where they came from. For example, they told stories of their time in the refugee camp, where he said his family was grateful that there were no bombs or bullets, but food could be scarce.

“Those are things that my parents made sure that they instilled in me, the fact that this is who we are and this is a part of us and we can never let it be forgotten,” he said. “But we have to move forward.”

Said added that his parents had to leave everything they knew behind to move to a new place. While his father worked as a pediatric surgeon in his home country and his mother worked as a teacher, they couldn’t practice in the United States until they were licensed again. Eventually, he said, his mom became an executive director at a non-profit in Winona and his father was certified as a surgical assistant.

“Coming from your countries with the right kind of support, you can and will succeed,” he added. “My parents are the greatest examples of that.”

Moving to the United States was not without it's challenges. Mayor said she did not speak English when she first resettled in Minnesota. She said she has found that because she has an accent, there are people who will criticize her for it. However, she said she doesn't take it personally.

Despite the initial challenges, Mayor also said she never felt alone when she came to Rochester because her husband was a member of a church, and the members welcomed them like family.

“I’m really grateful that I was resettled here in Rochester, Minnesota,” she said.

Rawhi Said works as a project coordinator at IMAA.

Said also said he has experienced challenges due his name being unique in the United States.

“Growing up you really felt that silent judgement," he said. "But I do want to stress that it’s very minimal.”

In recent years, the number of refugees resettling across the United States has dropped significantly. Minnesota has historically accepted a higher proportion of refugees within their immigrant population than many other states.

"Minnesota as a state has always been welcoming and it is still today very welcoming," Said added. "I know that this county and that this state has always been an advocate for refugees and immigrants."

Mayor said she believes the United States is known for welcoming people and she loves having the opportunity to help people.

"Some people come here and they know nobody and they think their lives are done," she said. "If they come to IMAA and become my clients, I tell them, ‘Guess what? I was just like you, and look at me now.’”

READ MORE:

Minnesota seeing impact as fewer refugees resettle across the US

Nicole Valinote

Social Media and Digital Content Manager

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