Encouraging the Leader within One Remarkable Young Woman

By Jenelle Thomson, AmeriCorps VISTA

News headlines about conflicts around the world become  more real and personal when you come to know the survivors. Since I began working at PAIR, the world has become smaller for me with each young refugee I meet. Their stories and spirit move me. One such remarkable young person is Haja.

Before I knew Haja, her cousin and brother, Ibrahim, were in the PAIR summer program. Both are smart and funny young men. They were the first people I had met from Darfur, and I was surprised by the openness of Ibrahim in speaking about his family’s experience in Darfur.

I later visited Ibrahim’s apartment to inform his parents about the start of the after-school Global Learners program. I was graciously welcomed into their bustling home. Two small children smiled at me curiously, while a third shyly peeked from around a doorway. It was then I met 16-year-old Haja, who instantly struck me as a bright and friendly young lady. After hearing me explain PAIR programs, she inquired if she could be in PAIR, too. At the time, we had recently expanded to their neighborhood and were operating programs for middle school students only. I told her we were hoping to start a program for high school students very soon and I would keep in touch.

 Haja on a school field trip

Haja on a school field trip

On another visit, the younger students weren’t home, and I started a conversation with Haja. I learned she is a diligent student and the star of virtually every sports team at her school.  She began talking about her home country and was open in relating her family history to me. Haja was seven years old when conflict broke out in Darfur, and she witnessed unspeakable acts of violence that no one, and certainly no child, should ever have to see. Her family spent two years on the run from militias, sleeping under trees and eating fruit for sustenance, at times too afraid to even drink water because streams had been poisoned. Eventually, they reached relative safety at a refugee camp, and were resettled in Houston almost two years ago.

Haja and I talked for hours as she told me about Darfur, showed me her village on Google Earth, and played YouTube videos of music from her country. She left quite an impression on me: the picture of strength and resiliency. After everything she has experienced, she is caring, thoughtful, and optimistic.

This semester, PAIR launched a pilot Global Leaders program for high school students who live at Haja’s apartment complex. Haja was, of course, at the top of the list of students we wanted to enroll in the program. She was all smiles when we told her about it, and arrived promptly to the first session.

This past Saturday, Global Leaders focused on leadership. With their mentors, students read biographies of famous leaders, discussed what makes a leader, and what they learned that they could apply to their own lives. The last part of the activity was to write out the steps they would take to become a leader. When I described what to do, Haja said to me, “I don’t think I will be a leader.” My heart swelled, as I am incredibly inspired by this young woman and see great potential within her.

“Yes, you will!” I exclaimed, “I know you will.” I explained to Haja that someone does not have to become president or even famous in order to lead. Everyone has their own way of being a leader, and everyone can do good things in their lives. She nodded, and went to work writing out her steps to becoming a leader. When I saw the final result, it took great effort to stop tears from welling in my eyes:

 Haja’s steps to becoming a leader

Haja’s steps to becoming a leader

She wrote that she wants to bring peace and freedom to the people of Darfur.

I say it frequently about my work, but I am truly and continually humbled by the refugee communities we serve at PAIR. Thinking of the challenges our students have overcome and still face, everything else is put into perspective. Haja is just one of over 200 students currently in PAIR programs, each with their own incredible story. This is why I serve as an AmeriCorps VISTA—to motivate and empower  each and every student to reach their highest potential.