A Powerful Voice for Refugees
Over the past five years, Mary Maker ’23 has worked with the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) to raise awareness about the refugee crisis and ensure that refugees have access to education. This March, two days before International Women’s Day, Maker was appointed an official United Nations Goodwill Ambassador. This new appointment gives Maker the opportunity to work with high-profile celebrities, government officials, and policymakers all over the world to continue her advocacy work on a larger, global scale.
“I get to work with people like Cate Blanchett, Kat Graham, and Angelina Jolie. Most of the people on the Goodwill Ambassador team are changemakers in the world — they are actors, they are Olympians, they are models — and I get to be in this team to raise awareness of the growing number of refugees in the world,” Maker says. The UNHCR notes that there are more than 100 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, and 32.5 million of those people are refugees. It’s a number that has grown over the past 10 years, making the work of Goodwill Ambassadors like Maker more critical than ever.
“I have lived the experience of being in a refugee camp, of staying there, stuck,” says Maker. “As a child refugee who came into the camp at the age of 2 or 3 years old, I have a different experience than most of the Goodwill Ambassadors, so I’m glad I get to have a voice at the table of policymakers.”
While Maker is quick to note that her experience as a refugee provides just one perspective out of millions, the focal point of her advocacy is the importance of refugee education. Maker and the UNHCR have identified that the lack of access that refugees have to education and information is of particular global importance. The number of refugees worldwide who have access to higher education is 6 percent, and the UNHCR’s goal is to increase that number to 15 percent by 2030.
As a South Sudanese refugee in the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, Maker struggled to obtain the right documentation to legally attend school. She spent four years applying for and getting rejected from scholarship programs. “By the time I got my scholarship to come to St. Olaf, most of my friends had already graduated,” Maker says.
Maker has been a pioneer for refugee education long before her appointment as a Goodwill Ambassador. In 2018 she gave a TED Talk titled “Why I fight for the education of refugee girls (like me).” In April 2021, she founded Elimisha Kakuma, a nonprofit organization with a mission to provide refugee students with opportunities to go to college abroad. The organization’s work is off to a strong start: seven refugee students supported by Elimisha Kakuma are finishing their first year of college, and another nine students will begin this fall, eight with full financial aid from their college or university. Her long-term goal for Elimisha Kakuma is to encourage a global ripple effect so there are more organizations that are able to prepare refugee students to attend colleges and universities.
Maker says a lack of access to information and education leaves many refugees feeling stuck. “Refugees flee with so many skills, and all of a sudden you get reduced from Mary to Mary the Refugee, and most people don’t know the power you bring into the refugee camp,” she says. “You have talent in the refugee camps — you have doctors, you have philosophers, you have people who were contributing to their countries who have fled and have now become refugees. You come to the camp for one year, that one year turns into 10, into 20, and you realize you’re stuck.”
Maker’s goal as a Goodwill Ambassador is to ensure that refugees don’t forget their dreams and talents. “How am I able to use this platform — working with celebrities, working with presidents and prime ministers and companies like Google and all these big people I get to be in front of — to ensure that refugees in those camps feel like they have been seen and heard?” she says.
How am I able to use this platform — working with celebrities, working with presidents and prime ministers and companies like Google and all these big people I get to be in front of — to ensure that refugees in those camps feel like they have been seen and heard?Mary Maker ’23
Maker’s powerful voice has an immense impact on the global stage, but she also uses her voice for advocacy closer to her home on the Hill. For her senior theater capstone project, she wrote and directed a play titled “The Choice” that highlights parts of the refugee experience. “Most of my characters are grappling with the idea of home — what is home? — and the struggle with immigration, with documentation and having to retell your story over and over again,” Maker says.
Her play aims to engage the audience in thinking about what it is like to be a refugee. “If you were to lose your home today, what would you take with you? How would you like to be treated? It’s just bringing the audience along to actually get them to understand ‘Who is a refugee?’ — and honestly speaking, it’s you, it’s me,” Maker says.
The play’s name — “The Choice” — is ironic, Maker notes. “You don’t get to choose to become a refugee — it just happens. No one wakes up in the morning and says ‘I want to be a refugee,'” she says, noting that most people become refugees as a last resort, as an escape. “No one decides to go on a boat that might sink. You don’t walk across border lines seeking safety in a different country knowing very well that you are going to be rejected, knowing very well that you are going to lose your identity and become this new thing called ‘refugee.'”
Above all, Maker wants to tell stories, and she wants to create platforms to empower other refugees to share their stories as well. “Refugees bring so much to communities,” she says. “They are bringing culture, they are bringing food, they are bringing different lifestyles that people can benefit from, they are bringing community, and this is a big thing that I really want to champion.”
Read more about Maker’s work on and off campus in this St. Olaf News story.