Elizabeth Lou was luckier than most refugees. She was an educated woman with a degree in public health and a good grip on English. Yet she struggled to make sense of her new world.
Even the buses were baffling. In Sudan she would board the bus and a man would come to collect money and give her the change. In San Diego there was just a little box next to the driver. Nothing was explained. Everyone seemed to expect her to know it all automatically.
Bit by bit Lou made her way — and she decided she would make the way easier for women like her. Roughly a decade ago, Lou founded the Nile Sisters Development Initiative, a nonprofit that helps refugee women adjust to the United States. It links newcomers to job training and health care and provides lessons in nutrition, preschool and conflict resolution.
When I stopped by to see her this week, the University Avenue office was packed with immigrant families waiting for their annual Christmas giveaway of diapers, dish soap and other necessities. Lou mimed how to use their new mouthwash, apologized for not having enough detergent for everyone, and somehow managed to field my questions in the middle of it all.
What kind of support was there — or not there — when you first got here?
I didn’t see much support. That’s why it hit me. I was working as a community educator with a health clinic, knocking people’s doors and talking to women to see how they are coping with the new life here.