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By Janis Russell

March 1, 2015 (San Diego)- On Wednesday February 25, Somali Family Services held its third annual Oceanleaf awards celebration at the Four Points by Sheraton. Aaron Bruce,  a professor at San Diego State University, was the Master of Ceremonies. The theme this year was Honoring Communities Woven Together by Hope and Resilience.

Those who won awards were Liban Ali from the San Diego Somali Autism Awareness Initiative, Dr. Maria Lourdes-Reyes from the U.S. Border Programs which is part of Project Concern International, Wendell French from Wells Fargo bank, Lenore Lowe from Nonprofit Management Solutions, Imam Taha Hassane from the Islamic Center of San Diego, Bob Montgomery from International Rescue Committee, Mohamed Ahmed from Communities Reviving East Africa (CURE), and Ismahan Abdullahi from the Muslim American Society of San Diego.

Bruce gave a warm welcome to everyone who came. Another speaker told a story geared towards the youth, explaining about Somalia’s long history, where women have been central figures. He wanted the young people to know that Somalia was not always in war.

Bruce then explained where the name Oceanleaf comes from. “The ocean signifies the journey of Somalis as East Africans become new Americans… The leaf is a reminder of Somalia… These symbols remind us why we’re here tonight.”

Montgomery was the keynote speaker for the evening, and he will be retiring this month after 38 years in the IRC.

“I first began working at the IRC to help Southeast Asian refugees, mostly Vietnamese immigrants,” he recalled. The 1980 refugee act was passed, which addressed the realities of modern refugee problems including how to deal with refugees, how to resettle them, and how to assimilate them into America. “Refugees came from all over the world along with new social services to help refugees. [But] many agencies competed against each other.” He also added that the IRC serves immigrants and non-immigrants alike, and they have built many community partnerships to expand resources available for refugees and immigrants. “There’s still much work to be done,” he said, adding that it is estimated that there are 54 million displaced refugees.  He ended with a hopeful note, saying that many resources have successfully helped refugees and immigrants adjust to life in America.

Pedro Villegas from SDG&E, which sponsors this event, said a few words before the honorees were presented with the awards.

“I’m a Columbian and moved (with family) to Georgia in the 1970’s… We were in a very different place… We’re pleased to support the Somali Family Services.”  He also noted that his parents helped other Latino immigrants, all of whom have expressed their thankfulness to Villegas.

Bruce introduced Ali first, who won the Volunteer of the Year Award. It is presented to an individual who selflessly dedicates his or her time and resources to the community enhancing the quality of life for others. After Bruce gave background on each of the recipients, a short video was shown of them individually explaining what they do in their organization.

From the program brochure, “Ali was born in Mogadishu, Somalia, where he studied Italian and French. He had only attended university for two years before the Somali government collapsed and the civil war began. Liban’s family’s refugee status in the U.S. was granted before his, leading almost to a decade of separation… [Then] he settled in San Diego with his wife, whom he married while residing in a Kenya refugee camp.”

Both of his daughters were diagnosed with autism. He was “encouraged and empowered to educate himself. This led to the start of the Somali San Diego Autism Awareness Initiative supported by Somali Family Service. He provides education and spreads awareness about autism to the communities in the Mid-City and City Heights areas, sympathizing with the fear and pain many feel toward autism. Liban has been successful in connecting more than 40 families with health care providers and resources. Liban will continue advocating for more autism resources, therapy and education that he believes everyone is entitled to.” In the video, one thing Ali says is, “With my experience, I can help.”

Next, Dr. Lourdes-Reyes was introduced with the Health and Well-Being Award. This award is presented to an individual or organization dedicated to the health and well-being of the community. This year’s recipient represents a selfless and nurturing individual, dedicated to helping others, and ensuring the happiness and welfare of others and bringing the community together.

From the brochure: “Maria volunteers hundreds of hours giving lectures on cancer to the community and advocates for legislative changes in cancer diagnosis, treatment and access with personal visits to local, state and national politicians. She work with the [UC] Irvine Health Policy, Research Pacific Islander Cancer Control Network, (is medical director of the) San Diego State University (SDSU) Foundation Cancer Clinical Services Quality Assurance Program and SDSU Business School Community Economic Development program. She served as the president of the California Division of the American Cancer Society and continues to have leadership positions in local, state and national organizations including but not limited to: Philippine Medical Association, United Way of San Diego, and is the founder and facilitator of One Vision One Voice: A Filipino American Movement.” She explained in the video that she came to the U.S. as an immigrant. She has also helped East African groups. In a brief speech, she said, “I honor each and every one of you… I remain in continued humble service to any one of you.”

Third was French, the vice president and regional manager of Wells Fargo.  He won the Opportunity Award, which is presented to an individual or organization involved with the economic development of the community. This recipient represents a dedication to the promotion of self-sufficiency and independence within the community, acting as a constant resource of support and a role model for others.

From the brochure- “For the past 35 years, Wendell French has held a variety of management positions in the financial services industry. At Wells Fargo he has been a regional emerging market manager and a regional mortgage loan production manager. As the regional vice president for community development, Wendell is responsible for managing community relations and economic development activities. He represents the company in all aspects of community outreach to assess community credit needs and the company’s effectiveness in meeting those needs.

“Wendell has served on a number of community boards and currently serves on the board for: San Diego LISC Advisory Board, the San Diego City-County Reinvestment Task Force, and is committee chair for Young Life-South Bay. Wendell’s greatest joy is derived from his involvement with local charities that support the youth and the elderly.” Bruce also explained that, “For many years, we have turned to Wendell for advice, support and his wisdom.” In French’s speech, he thanks his wife Tanya and son Joseph.

Next was Lowe, who won the Innovation Award. This award is presented to an individual who has pioneered new ideas, demonstrated risk taking and maximized his or her resources to improve the quality of life within the community. The brochure says, “In 2010, Lenore Lowe was appointed to executive director of Nonprofit Management Solutions (NMS), San Diego’s leading provider of professional development programs, consulting and information referral services for the nonprofit sector. Lenore serves as principal on all NMS consulting projects. Lenore has more than 25 years of experience in nonprofit management and governance. Lenore began partnering with Somali Family Service in 2009 to provide leadership development for the staff and volunteers of organizations serving the East African community. That partnership continues to grow as leaders in the community collaborate to better serve their shared constituency.” In the video, Lowe encouraged everyone to learn more about the refugee community. Bruce told the audience, “For five years, we have worked with Lenore in the community… She has helped to make advances…” Lowe said it felt weird getting an award for doing something she loves.

Hassane, who is the director of Public/Interfaith Relations at the Islamic Center of San Diego, was presented with the Spirit Award. This award is presented to an individual who demonstrates support for the humanity of the individual as well as the community. This individual protects and advocates for human rights. According to the brochure, “Imam Taha Hassane graduated from the Institute of Islamic Sciences at the University of Algiers in Algeria and served as a high school teacher and Imam [an Islamic leadership position] in Tenes, Algeria for 10 years before coming to the United States. He earned his master’s degree in theology of Islamic studies from the Graduate Theological Foundation in South Bend, Indiana.

“[He] currently serves as the Imam of the Islamic Center of San Diego and the director of interfaith, public relation and youth program. Imam Taha is a religious advisor to UCSD’s Muslim Students Association and the volunteer chaplain at San Diego prisons. He serves as the vice chairman of the Islamic Council of Southern California and a board member of the Interfaith Center for Worker Justice of San Diego County, the San Diego Police Department and the District Attorney’s Office.  He is also a member of the West Coast Muslim-Catholic Dialogue and the National Board of the Interfaith Worker Justice in Chicago, Illinois. “

In the video, he said that the refugee community has always reached out to the Islamic Center and he added that no one should underestimate what they can do. Bruce pointed out that, “[He] has been a great friend to Somali Family Service…. He is a bridge builder… He’s actively committed to youth and family issues.”  Then, in Hassane’s speech, he said it was great honor and pleasure to be on the stage, but “we  (the honorees) are not doing a favor to anyone.” He added that because he’s an immigrant from Africa, whenever he tells people he’s African African, no one believes him. That drew some laughs from the audience.

Montgomery won the leadership award from his work with IRC. This award is presented to an individual or organization that is respected as a voice of and for the community. This recipient is a leader, dedicated to problem solving, finding solutions and building a stronger and more connected community. The brochure says, “[He] first began working with the International Rescue Committee in 1976 and assumed his executive director position in 2001. His areas of expertise include refugee resettlement, immigration, advocacy and fundraising. Bob earned his bachelor’s degree from San Diego State University and earned a master’s degree in social work from Temple University in Philadelphia. He is partially accredited by the Board of Immigration Appeals to represent immigrants before the Department of Homeland Security.

“Bob represents the committee in broad appearances on NPR, KPBS and PBS radio. He advocates and presents for resettlement and immigration issues at numerous conferences and workshops. He also co-authored, “Avenues: A Caseworker’s Guide to Immigration for Refugees and Asylees.” He served as the chair of the California State Advisory Council for Refugees and is still a member to this day.” In the video, Montgomery says that Americans can relate to refugees because everyone wants to do well for their families and ensure they have a good life here. Bruce mentioned that Montgomery has been to the White House. In his speech, Montgomery said, “I want to thank all of you for your support.. of refugees…” Then the President/CEO of Somali Family Service, Ahmed Said, decided to give Montgomery the new title of “Chief of Community” after he heard about his retirement, and he was given a shawl as a gift.

The first Emerging Leader Award was presented to Ahmed. This is presented to a young individual who upholds ideals of democracy, justice and responsibility- a representation of a new generation of youth empowerment. From the brochure- “[This organization is] devoted to enhancing educational opportunities for students of East African descent. Under his leadership CURE Africa has raised over $180,000 for the American Refugee Committee. Mohamed has also served as a work readiness instructor for the International Rescue Committee. In this capacity, he supported refugees in resettling in San Diego and finding gainful employment. Mohamed is widely considered a leading voice in East African business and civic circles, providing guidance to local leaders and organizations, such as Congressman Juan Vargas and the Council on American Islamic Relations, among many others. Mohamed is the recipient of numerous honors and awards, including the San Diego State University Iscorian of the Year, Somali Youth United Leadership Award, Phi Beta Sigma Community Activist of the Year and the Community Housing Works VALOR awardee.” Bruce also noted that Ahmed had immigrated to the U.S. with his parents as a child. In the video, Ahmed said the organization works a lot with middle school and high school students, and there is also a co-op program, which helps mentor and tutor future first-generation college students to become highly competitive college scholars. After thanking Bruce, his mentors, friends and family, he brought up a Somali saying, “A finger cannot wash a face.” This means that in order for the immigrant community to succeed, everyone must work together.

Last for the Emerging Leader Award was Abdullah. The brochure stated, “In 1992, Ismahan Abdullah and her family escaped war-torn Somalia to have a life filled with opportunities in America. Ismahan earned her bachelor’s degree where she served as the president of the Muslim American Society (MAS) at UCSD and is active within MAS San Diego in varying capacities. She also served as the Tarbiyah director for MAS San Diego and is a board member for Masjid Huda and Islamic Center of San Diego. She teaches classes on personal and spiritual development for youth in Maskid Huda and MAS.

“As a writer and speaker, Ismahan has published articles on Islamic Tarbiyah and is a frequent guest speaker at colleges, organizations and community events. Her passion lies in working with the youth to help them strengthen their relationship with Allah and retain their Muslim identity as they develop mentally, spiritually, and intellectually.” In the video, Abdullah mentioned her father was killed and she saw her uncle murdered while they were still in Somalia. “I am here today because of the sacrifices made from my mother and family…”, she added. She also pointed out that people would tell her she was at a disadvantage because of her being a Muslim, being a person of color, and being a woman. However, she has not let those stop her from preserving in life.

In her speech, Abdullah advised everyone to find out their purpose and talents to serve the community.

Earlier in the evening, entertainment was provided by Sene Africa comprised of three men from Senegal and a Dhaanto performance from the Somali youth. The chair of the board from Somali Family Service, Joachim (Joe) Reimann, said he got involved with this organization because “I’ve seen a huge amount of resilience.”

Elected officials came up on stage too. Raquel Vasquez, mayor pro tem of Lemon Grove, expressed her happiness to be at the event. A republican of Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez introduced a resolution for Somali Family Service. Jonathan Herresa from mayor Kevin Faulconer’s office presented a proclamation declaring that Wednesday February 25 was Somali Family Service day. Victor Vena, a representative of San Diego County supervisor Ron Roberts, on behalf of all supervisors also made the same proclamation. Wayne Brown, who represented Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, pointed out that Weber has been to Africa many times.  

There was even an opportunity drawing with four items.

A video was then shown about Somali Family Service and people who’ve had experiences with this organization talk about it including Abdullah, board member Ahmed Maani, check and connect case manager Ghazia Hassan, and two other students. After the video, Najla Ibrahim, health and wellness director, explained more about Somali Family Service and the different programs they provide including health and youth.

Maani, who’s the newest board member and who was also in a refugee camp, pointed out that the leaf in ‘Oceanleaf’ could also mean that it’s time to turn over a new leaf, to start over. Munira Ali read a poem she wrote herself about the experience of being a refugee and immigrating to America.

At the end, one more video was shown of all the honorees encouraging everyone to reach out to refugees and get involved. Then, Said thanked everyone for coming. The night ended with Hassane saying a prayer.

View more pictures from the event from Ron Cook Media:  http://www.roncookphoto.com/RonCookMedia/OceanLeaf-Awards-Event/.

For more information about Somali Family Service, visit: http://www.somalifamilyservice.org/.

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