The Long Road to a New Home

Harriet Oyera's journey from Ugandan refugee to U.S. citizen was shaped by relationships and community.

Harriet Oyera, a widowed mother of three, fled Uganda’s nefarious Lord’s Resistance Army in 2006 in hopes of starting a new life in the U.S. She told her teenage children she’d send for them soon, but the process was more complicated than she imagined. Landing alone in Minneapolis, she was referred to St. Thomas’ Interprofessional Center for Counseling and Legal Services (IPC), which helped her – and, years later, her children – receive asylum and work permits.

It’s been a long journey during which she has adjusted to her new home and is back in school earning a master’s degree in social work at St. Thomas to help others. After 13 years in the states, on July 20 she was sworn in as a naturalized citizen, along with 500 others from 75 countries, at the RiverCentre in St. Paul.

“I feel so proud. I have a voice now. I feel I have a home,” Oyera said.

From Uganda to Minnesota

Harriet graduated from Makerere University and worked for 22 years in the Uganda Judicial Department, but had to leave it all behind in 2006.

“I left, not because I wanted to,” she said. The Lord’s Resistance Army, a rebel force known for its murdering and kidnapping of thousands of citizens, had killed her husband and tortured her. She feared for her life.

Harriet get a hug after receiving her citizenship.

Harriet Oyera get a hug after receiving her citizenship. Contributed Photo

“And when you get to where you’re going, you feel like you are nothing. You have nothing,” she said.

Leaving her children, siblings and mother in Uganda was very difficult for her. “So that’s the pain that you move around with. People see you smile, but you feel waves of pain.”

She said the IPC and the Center for Victims of Torture helped her grow stronger.

“Their collaboration helped me recover from my helplessness and brought me back to life,” she said. “They helped encourage, empower and heal me.”

The Center for Victims of Torture referred Oyera to the IPC, which offers services and advocacy to underserved individuals through its social work services, psychological services and a legal services clinic.

Law Professor Virgil Wiebe leads the Immigration Clinic within legal services. He and clinic students listened to Oyera’s story, and prepared her for and accompanied her to the asylum interview.

“Harriet brings such joy, hope and resilience to life, even when life often brings us heartache, misery and suffering,” Wiebe said.

Her case provided the opportunity for law students to work alongside their peers in psychology and social work who offer counseling, case management and emotional support to trauma victims.

Once the Immigration Clinic helped Oyera seek asylum, she was able to petition for her children to join her. Five years later, they were granted access into the country. Students working with the Immigration Clinic helped file the paperwork to obtain their work permits. Today, her daughter, Patricia, and son Deo work at Wells Fargo, and son Ronney is employed in the trucking industry.

Since her arrival in the U.S., Oyera has been very involved in her communities. She has been a Food Justice Council organizer, an executive assistant to a Lutheran pastor, an assistant at Pitney Bowes and Fredrickson & Byron, and has started community gardens and The Healing Threads, a quilting project to enable stressed women to find a creative community of peace. She has also worked in a nursing home and as a caregiver.

A Minnesota family

Among the many people Oyera has befriended while living in the Twin Cities, Terri ’00 MBC and Tim Traudt are two she considers family.

“This is the couple that blows my mind,” Oyera said. “They helped me and my children find ‘home and belonging’ in concrete, practical and spiritual ways. Tim and Terri have welcomed me and my family into their extended family and have given additional security to our dreams and shared their time and space to celebrate birthdays, graduations, holidays and other significant events. This became my complete family. That’s why I feel like I’ve got a home now, because I have people.”

The Traudts met Harriet in 2011 when she was a caregiver for their elderly neighbor in Edina.

“When we learned that Harriet’s arrival in the U.S. to seek asylum had been preceded by the murder of several of her family members and her own experience with torture and abuse, and that she had found a way to forgive the assailants and abusers in order to move ahead with her own life, we were stunned,” Terri said.

“We became neighborhood friends,” Terri said. “When her children arrived, we became really close. They’re a really fun, bright, lovable family.”

“It’s incredible how much Harriet and I have in common,” Terri continued. “She and I simultaneously give credit to one another for lessons learned and the benefit of knowing one another.”

“I had a number of challenges being single and having health issues,” Harriet said. “My daughter had cancer. Tim and Terri never left me alone in the struggle. It gives me a total sense of the love of family.”

In addition to their friendship, Oyera and the Traudts share a passion for social justice, which has brought them even closer.

Harriet Oyera with Professor George Baboila, left, and Professor Virgil Wiebe, right.

Harriet Oyera with Professor George Baboila, left, and Professor Virgil Wiebe, right.

When Oyera was encouraged by George Baboila to earn a master’s degree in social work, she was reluctant. He gave her a book, The Life of a Social Worker, and reminded her that most of her life’s work had been helping others. She was still hesitant, because she didn’t want to take on debt.

The Traudts came up with the idea of creating an annual scholarship to help students who work with refugees and immigrants, but didn’t tell Oyera. She learned that she was the first recipient of a social justice scholarship, and though she initially didn’t know the source of the funding, she soon found out.

When she graduates in May, “I’ll be 60!” she exclaimed. “I’m joyful and proud. I’m so excited about what I’ll do next.”

A U.S. citizen

Oyera had her own cheering section of supporters at her naturalization ceremony in July.

“I felt overwhelmed with all of the love surrounding me,” she said. “I am deeply aware that I wouldn’t have made it to that day without their love, faith, patience and support.

“Without community and belonging, citizenship has no meaning for me,” she said. “I found my deepest sense of belonging had already been happening with all of the experiences and relationships I already had here in Minnesota. Relationships that create an atmosphere of love, honesty, understanding, forgiveness and patience feel like ‘home’ to me.”

She said that citizenship empowers her to have a voice to speak for others and encourage them.

“I can walk along others and make sure they also can be pulled out from where I was – empty,” she said. “As a citizen, I’m proud of all that I’ve done and all that I’ll do in the future. I’ll do it without fear or shame.”