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African Youth Leadership Conference urges education

for the Mid-County Memo

From left, conference participant Tessie Williams, organizer Fatuma Mohamed, attendee Christiana Darko, and conference speaker Claudette La Vert exemplify the diversity of ages and clothing styles of the women attending the African Youth Leadership Conference held in September at the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization.
At the African Youth Leadership Conference held Saturday, Sept. 29 at the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization, Claudette La Vert, a special education teacher in the Reynolds School District, told the more than 100 attendees, “The best revenge on a system that does not value you is to get an education — what a win/win!” La Vert’s words were delivered in a breakout session on the Keys to Academic Success and were in response to a concern raised by one of the youngsters.

Nearly 100 immigrant and refugee youths from a wide variety of African nations attended the conference. The conference was designed to empower African youth, ages 12 to 23, to succeed in school and life and to prepare them for future leadership roles in Portland’s African community. Additionally, goals were set to establish a sense of community among youth from multiple — and often warring — African cultures, to increase personal self-esteem and to affirm cultural awareness.

Valerie Palmer, a researcher and director of the toxicogenomics laboratory at the Center for Research on Occupational and Environmental Toxicology at OHSU, began the conference with a general address. Urging the young attendees to follow their dreams and to make a difference, she used stories of three children from different countries who came to the United States, became educated, successful, and are currently making positive differences around the world. Palmer, a Zulu who grew up poor on a small farm in South Africa, escaped apartheid at age 17 by traveling to England. Refused asylum, she later came to the U.S., where she completed her education and launched a career in research on the causes and cures of diseases affecting poor people in developing countries.

Sponsored by and developed under the guidance of IRCO’s Africa House, the conference was organized by a youth committee, including Fatuma Mohamed — who was two years old when civil war caused her family to flee its native Somalia. Spending the next 14 years living in a Kenyan refugee camp, Mohamed and her family were allowed to immigrate to the United States in 2004. Since early August Mohamed, now a junior at Cleveland High School in Southeast Portland, spent two days a week meeting with other immigrant youth and adult mentors planning the conference.

The sessions were attended not only by the youth but also by adults who were there to advise, speak to and encourage participants. Negussie Sado, who has a doctorate in education administration from Virginia State University, gave the attendees advice on the necessity and methods of advocating for themselves in their schools. Sado emigrated from Oromia in Ethiopia to get an education in the United States.

Also included in the conference were an African youth fashion show and African music provided by DJ Menzies.

Mohamed said that her goal for the conference had been achieved — “to give my ideas and get their (attendees’ and speakers’) ideas so later we all can have a better life.”
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