AURORA | As the head of research and public relations for the Community College of Aurora’s “Thank You America” campaign, Abdirizak Farah talks the talk.
When asked to describe the purpose for the recently concluded campaign, which for the past two months has acted as a means of welcoming refugees to the metro area while simultaneously battling anti-immigrant rhetoric online, Farah is a confident, silver-tongued diplomat.
“This program is an opportunity for the new immigrant to have a voice among the wonderful community of Aurora,” he says with his hands clasped at his waist. “People should know that we are here, we are part of the community and we’re ready to positively engage in the community.”
But as a so-called double refugee, Farah has also walked the walk. Before moving to Aurora as a refugee about six years ago, he was a refugee for about 20 years in Kenya. Originally, he hails from Somalia.
“I came as an immigrant to Kenya,” he says. “I’m like a double refugee.”
Farah’s journey of crisscrossing borders was one of several on display April 14 at a closing reception for the Thank You America campaign held at the central branch of the Aurora Public Library.
Started in late January, the program was led by a team of more than a dozen CCA students and has hosted several events that were catered to immigrants and refugees, including a small arts festival and a business fair that featured immigrant-run firms.
The program at CCA was launched after CCA’s Academy for Civic Engagement, a pilot branch at the college, was chosen as one of 60 colleges from across the globe to be selected by the U.S. Department of State to create a program that could curb violent extremism. To get the program off the ground, the campaign received $400 in support from Facebook and $2,000 from EdVenture Partners, a subsidiary of the U.S. State Department.
Dr. Bobby Pace, chair of the social sciences department at CCA, applied for the college to participate in the program.
“We thought our niche would be creating a positive message based on the contribution of immigrants rather than the rhetoric that is anti-immigrant — that was the nexus,” Pace said.
He added that the program made sense at a school like CCA, which boasted a student body composed of people from 65 different countries in 2014, according to a demographic survey referenced on the college’s website.
To date, the Thank You America campaign has reached an audience of about 9,000 people via various social media channels, according to Gerald Webb, a CCA student who formerly attended both Cherokee Trail and Eaglecrest High Schools in Aurora.
Dr. Betsy Oudenhoven, president of CCA, said that the program acted as a vehicle for the college to break through a recent barrage of xenophobic rhetoric.
“I think what was great about our opportunity to participate in this is that we’ve been doing a lot of work this past year about issues surrounding diversity and inclusiveness, and with some of the national rhetoric … it’s been difficult,” she said. “It reaffirmed the college’s commitment to inclusiveness.”
Oudenhoven added that such initiatives buoy the clout of community colleges in national conversations on higher education.
“It elevates the community college conversation and reminds people of who is attending community college, and what they care about,” she said. “When we’re able to invite folks in, it addresses the mentality around community colleges and some of the lack of understanding about who we serve. It helps all of us because it just continues to reinforce our value.”
About 55,000 refugees — including secondary migrants — have been relocated to Colorado since 1980, according to the State’s Department of Human Services. About 2,250 refugees came to the state last year alone.