The refugee women who visit Women of the World’s office come with different stories, different burdens, and different challenges, but they all seem to have one thing in common: their heartfelt appreciation and affection for case manager Abby Bossart.
When Abby arrived at Women of the World as the organization’s first employee, she had already experienced much of the world: a summer in Ghana with a physician-assistant student group to learn about global health issues, a bachelor’s degree in Spanish Literature from Occidental College, a work/volunteer stint at a free clinic, and a six-month trip through South America that took her from Colombia down along the Andes to Ushuaia, Argentina.
Her experiences around the world helped prepare her for her new job at Women of the World (WoW) — advocating for refugee women and helping them come into their own as independent, empowered women. In her three short years with WoW, she and her clients have grown stronger and grown closer, and they’ve done it together.
WoW recently invited a few refugee women to participate in a podcast to celebrate Abby’s time with WoW, and the mutual affection between Abby and these women was obvious. Words like “patient,” “kind,” “big heart,” came up again and again to describe Abby. All of the women said she had “helped (them) too much.” Abby reminded each of them that they were the ones who had worked so hard — to learn English, start a business, find a job, and take care of their children. Their smiles and laughter reinforced what they repeatedly said about WoW…it isn’t just an organization, it’s family.
Abby starts medical school this fall. While she’s excited about the opportunity to combine her clinical skills with her experience advocating for refugee women, she will miss her time at WoW and the wonderful women she’s come to know.
What happens during a typical day at Women of the World?
Abby: That’s hard to answer, because every day is a little bit different. Some days it’s spent having tea with the women and catching up, laughing with them and hearing their stories. Other days, it’s quite intense. The women come in with problems that aren’t easy to solve, like bills that are going to collections, uncertainty about how to sign up for health insurance or Medicaid, or family issues. But at the end of the day, it’s about meeting amazing people and hearing their stories. If I can help in any small way, then I think it’s been a successful day.
Kaltum, can you tell us a little bit about your relationship with Abby?
Kaltum: Abby, she help me too much. She help me speak English. Abby has such a beautiful, kind heart. I came here from Sudan. For three years since I know Abby, there is nothing I need to be concerned about…papers, letters, bills, I know Abby is there and will take care of that. Any kind of letter comes to me that I don’t understand, I take it to her.
She helped me to learn about my business and was an advocate for me with the IRC (International Rescue Committee) to get my business started. Anything that is complicated for me she will explain it and make it easy for me. She’s very, very, very, very patient with me! She makes an appointment with me, and I don’t call her to tell her I’m not coming, but she still takes me when I come late.
I don’t know what to say to Abby, she is very special, I can tell her anything. Mashallah! (an Arabic expression of appreciation and thankfulness). Abby helped to explain all of the regulations to me in a soft way because I want to start my business and Spice Kitchen was saying I have all these rules and things to do and I was very frustrated and I complained to her but she helped me understand.
How did you learn to navigate all the bureaucratic red tape, Abby?
Abby: Honestly, it’s just through experience. Patience is everything, taking the time to listen to these women and not immediately jumping to conclusions. I make sure I take a step back, because these women’s journeys have been anything but easy, so I think it’s important to give them the patience and respect that they deserve. And learning that if you believe in something, you can keep advocating, keep resisting. I want to share those lessons with these women, for them to advocate for themselves, and that’s what they are doing. Kaltum is so passionate about getting her business started, but we have the health department here, we have more regulations here…. So I say to Kaltum, just take it slow, we’ll figure out the regulations, you’re so passionate, you’ll be so successful.
Pelagie, can you tell us a little bit about how you came to Utah and how Abby has helped you?
Pelagie (begins speaking in French, and Abby leans over and smiles and says, no, in English! You do it every day, you can do it!): I am from the Central African Republic. I’ve been in Utah since 2012. I have four kids. Abby help me if I have too much problems with my kids, she helps me with school, with doctor appointments, she help me with everything. I’m very happy for Abby and for the whole refugee community to have her here.
Abby: The women come with their children, they must figure things out with their kids, with themselves. It’s hard for the single mothers, they face so many barriers already, so nothing seems fair to them. Pelagie, for example, moved to Magna because the rent was a lot cheaper, but then suddenly she was farther away from her job and spending more money on gas to get to work. Her kids weren’t going to school because they didn’t like being in a new school where they didn’t know anyone and didn’t have their friends. Pelagie’s situation showed me how changing one thing like housing can cause a ripple effect that impacts everything else.
Anytime I meet with anyone, I want to make it a teaching experience. What did we learn from this? How can we not have it happen again? Do you understand why this happened? Because if I do everything, that’s not going to promote the self-empowerment and self-reliance these women need. They are good at learning new things, but also at laughing at their mistakes, staying positive, and moving forward.
Elisabeth, tell us a little bit about yourself and what it’s been like to work with Abby.
Elisabeth (her daughter Syntishe translates for her): I came to the U.S. in September 2009 from the Central African Republic. Women of the World had not opened their office yet, but Samira visited my house. I lost all my papers, but she helped me get them back.
Abby’s there for me. Whenever I get paperwork, I want Abby to read it. Abby helps me with my doctor’s appointments. Abby’s kindness is helpful, is happy. I thank Abby so much, I thank Women of the World so much, and I ask God to keep Abby safe. I came to the U.S. with my three children and Abby helped me to get citizenship and two of my children get citizenship too.
Syntishe: I was scared to take the citizenship test, but I was so happy when I passed. Samira pinched my ear and told me I had to go to school, get my citizenship. I’m so glad she did.
Abby: WoW is like a family. I get to see my sister, mom, daughter every day. It doesn’t even seem like work. I get to hear about these incredible women, and I’ll keep their stories with me always. It’s not going to be easy to leave. I think Women of the World offers something unique to refugee women. We work with women who may have fallen through the cracks. We take the time to listen to women so we can understand their situation, because everyone has a different story and needs different kinds of assistance. We’ve made our office a space where women can just come for tea and conversation and then go about their day. Sometimes all they need is a welcoming place where they can see their friends and connect.
Abby, what do you see as the biggest challenges for the refugee community and the organizations that work with refugees?
The way we resettle refugees must change. It’s not fair for women to flee their country and then face the same kind of poverty when they arrive in the U.S. We need to acknowledge the value of the refugee community and figure out how we can build a stronger community. Utah is very welcoming, so some people think everything is great. But sometimes we need to pair realism with optimism. There’s a housing crisis right now, for example. They come to me and say “I’m working full time and I can’t pay my rent and I have seven children and I’m alone.” These women need a living wage…50 percent of the way is something, but it’s not enough.
Most of all, our refugee organizations need to work collaboratively with each other. We need to think about refugees holistically. Every refugee nonprofit organization has a niche. Now we need to learn how to work together to ensure that these women aren’t forced to go it alone, that all of them can live good lives and be happy.