Co-Founder, Southern Sudanese Women's Association
Agnes Oswaha, MSW has a long experience in advocacy and community organizing. She earned a Master of Social Work and two Bachelor of Arts in Law, Society and Justice and in Political Science from the University of Washington. An asylee herself and a leader in the Sudanese community, she is actively engaged in public speaking, advocacy and other events especially those concerning immigrants and Sudanese affairs. She has co-founded several non-governmental organizations such as Hearts of Angels for Health and the Southern Sudanese Women's Association. Hearts of Angels for Health focuses on empowering Sudanese women and men to overcome their traumatic pasts and learn new skills in conflict resolution and improved health, particularly reproductive health. The Southern Sudanese Women's Association helps newly resettled Sudanese in Washington state adjust to life in the U.S. Agnes is also a board member and the Chair of Sudanese Outreach for Save Darfur Washington State and has represented the organization at many speaking, advocacy and event venues since its founding including the April 30, 2006 Rally for Darfur in Washington DC where she also lobbied at the U.S. Congress regarding the on-going genocide. In addition, she is a board member for South Sudan Women's Empowerment Network (SSWEN). She also conducts community referrals for legal issues, is a volunteer mentor for the Lost Boys and Girls of Sudan, has worked as a legal advocate at the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project and served on the Women's Funding Alliance BerMar Scholarship Committee from 2003-2005 and currently serves at the Women's Funding Alliance Economic Opportunity grant committee . Agnes participants in the Loving Families Program's advisory committee. She has also received several awards and honors such as the Karin Stromberg Award for Contribution to Social Justice and Academic Excellence (2004-2005) at the University of Washington and a Certificate of Honor from the Equatorian Sudanese Community Association of Washington (2004). Agnes is multilingual English, Arabic, Latuka/Otuho and is a certified HIV/AIDS instructor with the African American Reach and Teach Health. Agnes hopes to use her legal background to promote social justice and become an effective advocate for human rights.
N.B. Agnes is a mother of 2 children (Eric and Pashai)
Agnes Oswaha (left) and Harriet Dumba.Courtesy Redstone Pictures
Forced to flee their homes in southern Sudan because of military conflict which lasted more than two decades, Harriet Dumba and Agnes Oswaha have used their own experience as immigrants to the United States as motivation to help out others following in their footsteps. Dumba and Oswaha co-founded the Southern Sudanese Women's Association to help newly resettled Sudanese in Washington state adjust to life in the U.S., while their Hearts of Angels for Health - Sudan focuses on addressing key health issues for those in southern Sudan as well as immigrants from the region.
"We came here and most of us are here without relatives or even immediate family," says Dumba. "The few of us that were here in the early years just got together. The war in southern Sudan has really taken a toll on civilians - people separated from their home and family and parents. Those who were here, we said, 'We're not relatives by blood, but we are relatives by citizenship,' meaning that we are all Sudanese and coming from a background where community is so important.
"We sat down and said, 'How can we help ourselves and also help others who are coming after us?' We got the idea of putting a non-profit together. We started the first non-profit, the Southern Sudanese Women's Association, where we collectively as women did so much and so much and so much for the community."
"Harriet and I came up with the idea," adds Oswaha, "and we shared it with a couple of women, the elders of the community - although they are really not that old! They were really excited, so we were able to start. Our initiative basically was we have so much happening in the community. If the refugees in the U.S. are organized by a non-profit, we can be able to access resources and help their concerns be met. When we shared that with the other women, things went fast because people were really excited, including our American friends - they were very responsive.
"We were able to put the pieces together. I believe it's the women's contributions plus we won't take away the males' part. We had some men who volunteered, gave their ideas and their time and also funds to keep it going."
Dumba and Oswaha are honored to be a part of the Storm's Women of Inspiration Night.
"In my opinion, I think this is a great occasion that they are doing something like this for women," said Dumba. "For me, it's really so inspiring that somebody is seeing the work that women are doing. A lot of things they don't do for the glory, but it's really good to recognize people once in a while and say thank you for the work you are doing because you are not just doing it for your community or yourself, but you're doing it for the world at large. I am sure that the awards the Storm has been giving out have not just remained in Seattle but those people have gone on to other places or other countries where they have inspired other organizations to honor women. So it's a great occasion to me and very exciting."
How can Storm fans help as they find out about your organizations?
Oswaha: Basically, one, they could reach out to any immigrant community - it doesn't have to specifically be Sudanese. It's so hard as you are adapting to a new country, a new culture, a new language. You're faced with multiple barriers. If community members could reach out to newcomers who join their community, that would be really great.
In the U.S., we are really fortunate. Think of the people in Sudan who have nothing - children who go to school with new schools, who attend school under a tree. Teachers who walk for miles to go teach these children under a tree. We want to contribute - for example, build a new school. We're fundraising to get school uniforms for children, school supplies, build a hospital. We're trying to connect with companies in the U.S. to help with the American system in Sudan for development. Sudan has been through wars for many years - over half a century, so the country is definitely in need of help.Dumba: We also have another foundation, Hearts of Angels, for help. People that come here, they've faced so many challenges, trauma even to the extent of hurting each other or killing themselves because of the traumatic events they have experienced. We want to create awareness of that, telling people, 'You are strong, you can make it through.' Then we also have the reproductive part where we're trying to create HIV/AIDS awareness amongst the Sudanese. We also want to reach out to other immigrants. For example, here in Seattle, the Sudanese are amongst the populations with the highest rates of HIV and AIDS.
Then one of our projects that we are trying to do is we want to put a conference together for women to come in from all over the USA. We're trying to find funding to host that conference where we'd be conducting workshops to build awareness around HIV but also to create awareness of how these women can rise up and contribute to their communities and their families.
One of the things we want to hopefully do is build a community center back in southern Sudan especially for women and adult education. Women, right now they are having to be the breadwinners - especially in Sudan, because most of the men have been killed in the war. They'll be left with eight or nine or 10 children to take care of. With today's progressing world, you don't want your kids to get left behind - you want to send them to school. We want to support the women with projects that could help them be able to generate money. We want to open an adult center where we could teach them just the basics so they could continue to do those things and generate money.
We are hoping and praying that we will be able to build a clinic for the women. I've been in the Sudan for the past five, six months. When I come back, it's always like I can't sleep for months and months because my head is running as I think, 'What can I do for these women?' I can't do anything because I don't have the power. Sometimes I wish I could just talk to Bill Gates for one second, maybe have him donate just $1 million - I could do so much to help.
Who are some women who have been inspirational to you?
Dumba: One of the women who really inspired me was Anna Herr Clise, who was the woman who started Seattle Children's Hospital. My passion has been in health and in helping women and children - men are part of it too. She worked so hard and had that dream and saw it coming. That women really inspired me. I thought, 'In spite of the war in Sudan and all these things, I think if I have this vision like this woman had, I think I can do this.'
Another woman who inspired me is the woman in the bible who is a widower (the parable of the persistent widow), which my mom taught me. Everybody was scared of the judge, but this widower, she used to walk by every single morning and ask him, 'Grant me my judgment.' All he said was, 'I grant you your judgment because if I don't you're going to keep asking me every single day.' That was another woman who really inspired me - if we really want to do something, it might be a struggle in the beginning but at the end I can see this coming true. When we started this organization, it was just an idea. Agnes and I were just sitting down on our floor - we didn't even have chairs in the house. Now, seeing that we're being recognized for this, it's like, 'Wow.' Those are the women who inspired me - and, of course, many others like Mother Teresa.
Oswaha: As a child, I went to a Catholic school. From an early age, I learned about Mother Teresa. As a child, I always wondered how she devoted her life to serve others. I always wanted to meet her. I started learning from my mom - my mom has been a great influence on my life - how she spent her life taking care of the world, taking care of children. At the time, I didn't understand, but as I started growing, I began to understand exactly what she was doing and also how difficult those things were.