"I am thrilled you can come", she responded when I called. "This will be a very happy day for me." And what an amazing day it was, marking the graduation from high school of the last of her five children, all of whom she had guided and supported on her own, ever since the family's arrival as refugees, over 20 years ago.
When the Refugee Network first began, Agnes, a single mother, was hired as the first outreach worker. She expertly juggled helping other newly arrived refugees and providing for her family. " I want to make sure my children get a good education, and can find jobs," she told us. "I don't want them to have to struggle to make ends meet, like me."
She decided that the children would have better chances of doing well in a school away from the crowded inner city, where she lived, so she began looking for possible locations. When she read that a new housing complex was being built in North County, 35 miles north, in a more affluent community, and that a section of affordable housing would be required there, she put her savings into a down payment on an apartment there, before it was built.
When the time came, the move proved daunting. "I didn't want her to move away from us all", said her sister - a sentiment shared by all of her Sudanese friends. The children were at first nervous of their new schools, where there were no others from Sudan, and they had to make new friends. Network volunteers helped with tutoring and community connections. But it was Agnes's determination to do whatever it took to have the children succeed, that made the dream come true. She made lots of personal sacrifices along the way, and had to make many changes of job to create her new life in North County, but now it was the time for celebration.
The room was full of well-wishers, impressed with what each of her children had accomplished, and the self-confidence with which each was looking forward to making a difference in the world, because of the education beyond high school that each had chosen. They were an inspiration to the other young refugees present.
"Agnes worked very hard," said her sister, a little wistfully, as I sat beside her.
Helping refugees envision a promising future is a key feature of the Refugee Network's successes. Because of the assistance so many of you provide, there are other parents like Agnes, (and sometimes grandmothers who arrived in charge of a family of grandchildren) who have had the courage to help their young family members "dream big".
Our volunteers find coaches in all sorts of businesses and professions who can smooth the way for a head of household or a student, who needs to know more about preparing to be successful in a chosen field. A visit to a work site can make a dream seem more within reach. And your donations provide a suit for a job interview or part of a needed inventory for a tiny store, textbooks and calculators, suplemental healthy food to keep eyes bright and brains active, or transportation to a job site, or to tutoring.
That is why I want you to be able to see with your mind's eye, that small sitting room jammed full of friends and relatives, and to feel the excitement that your help has made possible. I want you to share in the sparkle in the eyes of the new high school graduate, preparing to start at Palomar College in the fall, and of the eldest daughter who finished a degree and married a professional photographer. She has just recently returned from helping him with a documentary on Ruanda. Another daughter is excited about her training to be a pastor. Then there is a son, who at his elementary school, won an essay competition sponsored by the Chargers Football Team. The prize was payment of his expenses at a University, if he kept a high grade point average each year through high school. He did that and has now completed his degree. You are part of the team that built that confidence and supported those dreams. You are with us there in the center of this celebration.