CHICAGO — Standing in front of the Massachusetts State House
with dozens of other protesters on a chilly Boston evening in 2013, Addisalem
Agegnehu finally felt at home. “I found the population I wanted to work with,”
she said. An Ethiopian immigrant from Sudan, Agegnehu organized a campaign to
raise awareness about human rights violations against Ethiopian migrant workers
in Saudi Arabia. It was a turning point in her life.
“I wanted a place for people to gather who were mourning
affected family members stuck inside Saudi Arabia,” she said. “The story hit
close to home. I’ve always been very close to the refugee and immigrant story.
It’s a struggle I can understand very well.”
This June, Agegnehu will be among the first graduating class
of students earning master’s degrees in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies
from DePaul University. Throughout Agegnehu’s journey from Sudan to Boston to
Chicago, she has turned empathy from her own personal experiences into service
and scholarship to help refugees and others.
Coming to America
Born in Sudan to Ethiopian parents, Agegnehu and her family
left Sudan as political refugees seeking asylum, ultimately arriving in
Cambridge, Massachusetts two months prior to Sept. 11, 2001. When she arrived,
she spoke fluent Arabic and no English. It was a difficult transition for
Agegnehu, who went on to earn her U.S. citizenship the same day she graduated
from high school.
“For the longest time, I had this struggle of being a
first-generation immigrant and being from one country, being born in a
different country and moving to a third one,” Agegnehu said. “Through that
whole relocation process there was a sense of longing for an identity. When I
came to the U.S., the first question everyone asked was ‘where are you from?’ I
was 10-years old, didn't speak English, and didn't know if I should say
Ethiopian or Sudanese. It took me a while to sort through that.”
Agegnehu attended Regis College in Boston from 2010-14,
earning a bachelor’s degree in international relations and a minor in religion.
She volunteered in Peru during a sophomore year trip, working with children and
helping to build homes. She also spent a semester abroad in the United Kingdom
at Regent’s University London, using one of her two elective classes to take a
course on refugee studies.
Following graduation, Agegnehu spent eight weeks in
Washington D.C. in a program hosted by the Institute on Philanthropy and
Voluntary Service, volunteering at AmeriCorps, where she took part in studies,
research and activities surrounding homelessness in the U.S. capital. That
opportunity led to another at the International Institute of New England as a case
management intern assisting refugees with services including transportation to health
screenings and acquiring social security cards.
“I loved every bit of it, Agegnehu said. “I met some amazing
clients. It really opened up my eyes to this field.”
Life at DePaul
Searching for her next step, Agegnehu sought a degree
program that could augment the internships and work she had done so far. In
what she calls a “sign from God,” she found through an online search DePaul
University’s newly created master’s degree program in Refugee and Forced Migration
Started in 2015, DePaul’s Refugee and Forced Migration Studies
program is believed to be the first graduate degree program of its kind in the
United States. The diverse course offerings include subjects in law, history,
public service and international studies. The program also features two sets of
practicums, which provide real-world experience to its students. One of
Agegnehu’s practicums involved an internship at RefugeeOne, where she helped
new refugees prepare to enter the American work force.
“My two practicums really helped shape my career interest,”
said Agegnehu. “As a result of the two practicums, I was able to gain
experience working with refugees, reviewing cases and learning more about the
asylum and immigration process in the U.S.
“With the help of this program, I’ve been able to shape my
dream job, which is to become a refugee officer or an asylum officer. I’ve
always wanted to work abroad and work in refugee camps. I see myself
reconstructing camps and making it safer for refugees, especially young
children and women. Displaced women and children face many harsh conditions in
camps and one of my hopes is to better construct camps to meet their basic
needs and rights,” she noted.
Shailja Sharma, an associate professor of international
studies in the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, is one of the
program’s founders and has known Agegnehu since she arrived at DePaul.
“It’s been a great experience having Addis in the program,
getting to know her and seeing her flourish,” Sharma said. “Ideally, the
program was constructed having students like her in mind who had the
determination, work ethic and idealism that would enable them to succeed in
their life work.”
For Agegnehu, DePaul has been the perfect fit in her life’s
journey to help refugees.
“DePaul’s mission and values really help me,” Agegnehu said.
“It gives me energy. It helps me continue to be passionate about the things I’m
passionate about. That’s something I really appreciate about DePaul. I really
like the tight-knit family we’ve created in this program. I love this school.”