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In 1999, Elizabeth Lou fled from Sudan to the United States after a lifetime of trying to escape Sudan’s civil wars. Armed with a college degree in public health, she hoped her background and education would help her easily adjust to life in San Diego’s City Heights.
She was wrong.
Instead, Lou faced the same struggle as other African refugees: Figuring out how to navigate the confounding mysteries of American life, from learning to drive and getting a driver’s license to finding appropriate health care.
Even routine parts of life in the U.S. can seem overwhelming to refugees. Lou recalls looking at a health care pamphlet and being told she needed to select a doctor. To her, this was a bizarre concept. “I thought, ‘I’ve never met these people before. How am I supposed to choose a doctor?’”
She ended up simply choosing a doctor based on the office address.
“This country was so different,” Lou said. “I worked really hard to overcome the barriers.”
Lou realized that other refugee women must be facing the same obstacles. So she went door-to-door in City Heights asking other refugee women about their needs.
“We talked about our needs together as African women,” Lou said. “And then the women elected me to lead the group.”
Many of the women lost their husbands in war-torn countries or had to leave them behind. Women had to become the providers for their families, a responsibility they never had back home.
To help her fellow refugees, Lou founded Nile Sisters Development Initiative, a nonprofit offering aid, resources, and support beyond the initial allocation period to refugees, immigrants, and newcomers to San Diego. The name was chosen so it wouldn’t exclude any nationalities. Nile Sisters will take any refugee in.
When asked why she chose the name “Nile Sisters” she said it’s because the Nile gives life to people in many ways. Nile Sisters wants to help refugees by providing them with all the necessary tools to make them self-reliant.
To assist women who have never been in the workforce, Nile Sisters offers vocational training programs for community members to receive behind-the-wheel training in order to obtain a California driver’s license and to become Certified Nursing Assistants (CNAs) or Family Child Care Providers.
As Lou worked with the refugee women, she noticed the importance of connecting families with healthcare and employers. The organization also helps families find the right health care coverage and learn about healthy-eating choices.
Lou says the food in refugee camps is always scarce and rationed so when refugees move here the food options can be overwhelming.
“There are so many portions, and not all the choices that are available for them are necessarily healthy foods,” she said.
Nile Sisters also provides basic resources like bathroom, kitchen and school supplies to help refugees in times of need.
Nile Sisters serves refugees from countries affected by war such as The Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Sudan and South Sudan. Others include Burma, Haiti, and countries in the Middle East.
“Refugees are resilient and hardworking people. They want to support their own families,” Lou says. “We cannot do this by ourselves unless people help us help these people.”
Solange: Mother, Student, and Certified Nursing Assistant
Solange B. hails from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Even as a new arrival, who left her family and three children in the DRC, Solange wasted no time finding ways to become financially stable. Her motivation is having a flexible schedule: “I have so many opportunities. I can go to school and work at the same time. I can do much more.”
With this determination, Solange worked with NSDI to take advantage of our vocational skills program. She chose to attend the Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) Program because her passion lies in providing services to others. After Solange successfully completed the program, she expressed: “I feel like an American […] I’m feeling great! Thanks so much Nile Sisters for helping me achieve something that I could not do for myself.” Her next goal is to gain employment and go to college in hopes of obtaining a nursing degree.