Wanjiru Kamau knows the difficulties immigrants from Africa face on arrival in the United States. She left her native Kenya three decades ago for graduate studies, and she eventually got a master’s degree and PhD at Penn State University and worked for years at the university. Now, Kamau is retired and has a second career that puts her in constant touch with something close to her heart.
At 67, Kamau is founder and executive director of African Immigrant and Refugee Foundation, which helps newly arrived Africans make a smooth transition into American society. In Kamau’s view, it’s not only the Africans who need to better understand America; it’s also Americans who need help understanding Africans.
“I saw a problem and knew I was growing old very quickly — I didn’t have time to wait,” she said. “I just had to get out and do what needed to be done.”
The District foundation develops after-school and weekend programs to help high schoolers from Africa ease into American culture. It also brings issues of concern among Africans to the broader community.
Kamau’s extensive education and long career at the university prepared her for pursuing her passions in retirement. Before coming to the United States in 1977, Kamau was a lecturer in sociology and an assistant dean of students at the University of Nairobi. She got a master’s degree and a doctorate in psychological counseling at Penn State. As part of her studies, she did extensive research on multicultural education.
While working on her PhD, Kamau was hired to help Penn State plan and implement its diversity policies. She was chagrined to realize the depth of cultural inequities within the university system. She realized that many of the cultural insensitivities stemmed from a lack of knowledge about Africa.
So she set about teaching faculty, staff and students using African proverbs and lullabies as cultural illustrations. She created training workshops and seminars on cultural differences for deans and school administrators.
“There is a lot of ignorance as far as Africa is concerned,” she said. “It hurt me so badly as an educator.”
Recognizing that African cultural awareness was needed on a national level, Kamau retired from academia and moved to the District, as she said, “to be near the seat of power.” At 59, she set up the African Immigrant and Refugee Foundation in 2000.
The nonprofit organization gets its funding from the local government, private foundations and individuals. The Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services is a sponsor. The foundation, which has just three part-time staff members, also does its own fundraising.
Kamau, who does not earn a salary from the organization, said she makes ends meet through some consultancy work. In 2002, the University of Maryland appointed her as visiting scholar to develop a curriculum on African culture.
Kamau said, “My goal is to have a full-fledged office with full-time workers. And I believe that would be realized by the end of the year.”
“We are really positioned to take off,” she said.
Source: Washington Post