Ten people who came to Minnesota as refugees were honored this fall for making a difference in their communities.
The fourth annual Outstanding Refugee Awards from the Minnesota Department of Human Services recognize refugees for civic engagement, entrepreneurship, young leadership and significant efforts during their first two years in the state.
“People who come to the United States as refugees endure great hardship in order to realize their hopes for a better life for themselves and their families,” said Human Services Commissioner Jodi Harpstead. “I’m so pleased to acknowledge the achievements of these individuals who have done so much to unify Minnesota and make our state a better place to live.”
In 2019, Minnesota welcomed 891 refugees from 13 countries, about half of them children and youth. The largest number of refugees were from Burma, followed by the Democratic Republic of Congo and Ukraine.
The Civic Engagement Award recognizes individuals who make their communities stronger through civic participation. One honoree is Rufo Jiru of Shakopee. Jiru is a chemist by training and profession, but humanitarian at heart. Jiru came to the U.S. as an Oromo refugee.
In 2016, she founded a nonprofit, Anole Sisters, that works to provide support and empowerment to Oromo women through community outreach, microloans, and short-term assistance to families in crisis. Jiru is a leader in helping parents of children with disabilities in multicultural communities, ever since witnessing the challenges faced by parents as a special education interpreter through the St. Paul Public Schools.
Jiru works tirelessly to connect families with services, provide emotional support and visit with them in their homes. She is an active member of the Disability Support International Advisory Working Group and the Minnesota Autism Council Working Group in St. Paul, and a board member of the Multicultural Autism Action Network and Minnesota International Non- Governmental Organization Network in Minneapolis.
Another civic engagement honoree is Dr. Obsa Abdulla Hassan of Spring Lake Park, a physician at Mercy Hospital in Coon Rapids, founder of the Axis Family Clinic in northeast Minneapolis, and a volunteer at Hadi Medical Clinic, a free community clinic in Brooklyn Center. So is Hani Haybe of Minneapolis, a nurse at Hennepin Healthcare and the founder of Street Soccer Twin Cities.
The other two winners for civic engagement are Farhiya Iman of St. Cloud, a social worker for Stearns County and owner of Nori Cafe and Creamery; and Novia Josiah-Isaac of Maplewood, a licensed social worker at the Center for Victims of Torture in St. Paul.
The Entrepreneurship Award goes to individuals who contribute to their communities in business, the arts or education. One honoree is True Thao, LICSW, of Cottage Grove. Thao established True Thao Counseling Services, where he and his staff provide bilingual and bicultural mental health services to adolescents and adults. He goes well beyond counseling, organizing food and clothing drives, when necessary, to meet people’s basic needs. Thao provides this capable, compassionate care for his own clients, but also shares his skills in mentoring others. In addition to promoting mental health, Thao values the history of his Minnesota community. He and his brother restored Cedarhurst Mansion, out of love for this Minnesota treasure. Thao, who came to the U.S. as a Hmong refugee, has created jobs and added to the vibrancy of his community.
Another entrepreneur feted is Amran Abukar of Willmar, an author and cultural liaison at Kennedy Elementary School.
The Young Leader Award acknowledges the contributions of young people who have achieved great milestones and are making a difference in their communities. Those honored are Ku Mo, St. Paul, a University of Minnesota student and community supporter; and Oballa Oballa of Austin, a student at Riverland Community College, and an advocate and leader in the statewide LeadMN student organization.
The New Beginnings Award recognizes individuals who have been in the country two years or less and exemplify resilience and courage while rebuilding their well-being and making Minnesota home. This year’s winner is Bugondo (Blaise) Ntibonera of Minneapolis, a refugee resettlement case worker at Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota in Minneapolis.
The department canceled this year’s awards ceremony because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but plans to honor the 2020 award winners at an event next year.