PORTLAND — It was a graduation ceremony punctuated by smiles and laughter. At its conclusion, the graduates let out a yell before having coffee and doughnuts.

Eighteen refugees from Africa received certificates Wednesday night at the Portland Public Library during the Refugee Leaders Capacity Building program’s third graduation ceremony.

Over four months, the graduates, who came to Maine from the Congo, Sudan and Somalia, were taught leadership and organizational skills that their mentors believe will help integrate their refugee communities into the broader community.

“Most of these people are already leaders in their communities. We’ve taught them to take their leadership skills to a new level,” said Noel Bonam, the consultant who developed the program.

Federal funding for the three-year project — more than $400,000 came from the Federal Office of Refugee Resettlement — has run out. The project was designed by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.

Bonam and some graduates said the program has helped the participants become better citizens, honed their leadership skills and taught them how government systems work.

For instance, Bonam said, several graduates used their skills last year to help the Sudanese community deal with the fatal police shooting of David Okot.

John Ochira, who graduated Wednesday night, was involved in the discussion between Portland police and the Sudanese community.

“I hope there is some way this program can come around again,” said Ochira, a 2008 graduate of Deering High School.

“This training has been an amazing experience for me. Two things I’ve learned: You have got to be patient and be a good listener,” said Marwa Abdalla, who moved to Portland from Sudan in 2004. “You have to listen to everyone because everyone has an idea. That’s how you start a community.”

Abdalla, a 2008 graduate of Portland High School, said she will use her language and leadership skills to help other Sudanese. She plans to help them fill out online job applications, write resumes and make phone calls to potential employers.

She is studying bilingual education at Southern Maine Community College in South Portland.

Elfadel Arbab, 26, moved to Portland from the Darfur region of Sudan six years ago. His biggest challenge was learning a new language, then reading and writing it.

“We have different cultures, different religions. I’ve learned how to work with the Portland community,” Arbab said. “We have to come together as human beings if we want to work together.”

Patrick Kambu Mbenza of South Portland moved here two years ago from Congo.

“It’s very important leadership,” he said. “You can’t clean someone’s house if yours is dirty. You have to lead by example.”

After handing out the certificates, Bonam asked the refugees to join hands and stand in a “celebration circle.”

“We want to end on a high note, so let your voices be heard,” Bonam said.

Each person was asked to say “Ma” before everyone shouted “Zunga.” Mazunga is a village in Zambia.

“It’s a chant that brings everyone together,” Bonam said.


Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

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