Mogtaba Maki knows what it means to be a refugee. Originally from Sudan, Maki faced a terrible decision. He had to either fight in a war that had plagued his country for years or leave his family behind.
At the age of 16, Maki packed three T-shirts, a pair of shoes and his identification card and fled to Egypt.
Maki, a USF biomedical student in his senior year, had the idea to bring World Refugee Day to campus.
“I’d seen a lot of people who didn’t know much about it,” Maki said. “With the event, they could have a better understanding of what exactly a refugee is, what they go through, how they get here and what kind of help they need.”
Bringing the event to USF was a collaborative effort spearheaded by the African Students’ Association. USF’s STAND (A Student Anti-Genocide Coalition), the Office of International Affairs, Lutheran Services of Tampa and the Gulf Coast Jewish Family Services also helped make the event a reality.
“It seemed like a good event that could launch more awareness about refugees on a personal level,” said Shirley Suprina, historian and spokeswoman for the African Students’ Association.
Rubis Castro, Tampa Bay regional director of Lutheran services, said awareness of the refugee crisis is significant to the Tampa Bay community.
“This event is important because of the lack of knowledge that the average American has,” she said. “We keep on saying that things are getting better – they’re not. They’re not publicized in the newspapers, and so we need to take a stand and let people know that we’re not going to let this happen and that we are going to get involved.”
Friday, Mayor Pam Iorio proclaimed June 20 to be World Refugee Day in the city of Tampa. The event, held in two sessions, began in the MLK Plaza with the reading of Iorio’s proclamation and presentations by several guest speakers. Information booths and a mock refugee camp were set up to help attendees understand the hardships refugees face.
The second session featured a panel of refugees from Togo, Liberia, and Sudan, as well as a panel of service providers. Panelists spoke about the plight of refugees worldwide, the services and opportunities available in the Tampa Bay area and the need for local support.
Three of the speakers were men from Sudan, each with his own harrowing story of war, pain and ultimate success. Speaker Daniel Agau was one of the original “Lost Boys of Sudan,” a group of thousands of young men who fled from war in Sudan between Islamic and Christian forces to refugee camps in Kenya nearly two decades ago.
Happy to have found a new life in the U.S., Agau said his sights are set on making a better life for himself.
“My main thing is education right now,” he said. “The rest I will solve when I get my education.”
The event brought together people from different paths. Students, professors, families and the refugees gathered in the MLK plaza to learn more about the refugee crisis
“Today, this afternoon, there is such an amazing mixture of people here,” said Nikki Kelly, director of refugee services for Gulf Coast Jewish Family Services. “We know the word is getting out to the community beyond just the service providers.”
Castro said she was pleased with the event’s turnout and spoke of the positive impact student involvement would bring to the cause.
“I’m completely in awe with these students,” she said. “If we get the students involved, then we have a fighting chance. That’s the link that we always have missed. We need to have the students care and really be involved.”
The student support meant more to Maki than just raising awareness. He said he is happy that more people are beginning to understand what he and so many others have had to endure. In his eyes, the event brought closure to his life as a refugee.
“When I was in the refugee camp I never thought I would come to America and live life again or that I would continue my education,” he said. “I just thought that I would be (in the refugee camps) and hopeless. But now I’ve come here and I think it’s going very well. I feel like I’m doing something with myself.”