St. Olaf student’s work provides a powerful voice for refugees
St. Olaf College student Mary Maker ’23 knows how to use her voice to make a difference.
As an ambassador with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), she has shared her own story as a refugee through a TED talk, interviews with international news outlets, and at conferences that also featured leaders like Michelle Obama and Meghan Markle.
She started a nonprofit called Elimisha Kakuma (“Educate Kakuma” in Swahili) to help refugee students get opportunities to study abroad. Over the summer Maker, along with the other co-founders of Elimisha Kakuma, won the Social Advocacy award at the annual We Rise Together celebration attended by university leaders, UNHCR humanitarian aid workers, and international students across the United States.
She is the former co-chair of the POC Ole Theater ensemble, which last spring performed her original play on the LGBTQIA+ community in South Sudan titled “Under the Baobab Tree.” This November she directed the ensemble in a production titled “Patchworks.” She is an avid poet, and her work has been featured in UPRISING, KARIBU’s African and Caribbean Night, and Black Ensemble’s cabaret.
A storyteller in everything she does, Maker wants to share her experiences and those of underrepresented people with the world. “I want to be in the fashion industry, I want to be in the acting industry, I want to be a writer, I just want to be able to tell the stories of the African continent,” she says. “I’m a storyteller. I was born to tell stories, and if I’m able to get that platform to make my way into Hollywood, to make my way into Broadway, and bring that little extra flair on stage … that’s where I see myself.”
Born in South Sudan, Maker grew up in Kenya as a refugee at the Kakuma Refugee Camp. She now works to raise awareness of the refugee crisis worldwide as a high profile supporter with the UNHCR, with a specific passion for refugee education. “I have done a TED talk on the importance of educating refugee girls because I personally struggled to get into school,” Maker says. “As a refugee woman coming from a patriarchal society, it has really been important for me to tell my story so that people all over the world are able to give opportunities for refugees to go to college.”
As a refugee woman coming from a patriarchal society, it has really been important for me to tell my story so that people all over the world are able to give opportunities for refugees to go to college.Mary Maker ’23
Maker’s work with the UNHCR has given her global reach. She has done interviews and fundraisers in Norway and the Netherlands that have helped raise millions of dollars to support the refugee crisis. She says, “I’ve been able to speak on platforms like The Stream on Al Jazeera and ABC News. I did a talk with Girl Up featuring Kat Graham, who is a famous actress from The Vampire Diaries. We were able to speak with big leaders like Meghan Markle and Michelle Obama, as well as other celebrities like Chloe and Halle. Being able to go to these conferences and connect with these powerful women has really been a life blessing.”
In her first year at St. Olaf, Maker had the opportunity to speak at the L’Oreal Women of Worth Red Carpet Awards to bring attention to the refugee crisis. Recently, she had the chance to speak with Liza Koshy, a popular YouTuber, actress, and television host. She says, “I’ve also been able to work with Liza Koshy and share the stories of refugees on a global platform, and also just let the world know that refugees … there’s more to us than just that identity. So my work is about highlighting refugee stories and telling refugees’ sides of the story in the best way possible.”
While Maker has a global reach, she is incredibly committed to giving back to her local community, especially providing opportunities for refugee education. To demonstrate this commitment, she and four of her friends founded a nonprofit called Elimisha Kakuma in 2021. The mission of this nonprofit is to provide refugee students with opportunities to go to college abroad. “It took me four years to get a scholarship to go to college because as refugees, we don’t have collateral or any way to pay tuition — but that does not mean we don’t have capabilities,” Maker says. Maker and the other founders of Elimisha Kakuma have partnered with Virginia Tech and have many student volunteers and interns who are helping students at refugee camps with college applications. Recently, Elimisha Kakuma was honored with the Social Advocacy award at the annual We Rise Together celebration
Over the summer, Maker continued her impactful work with the UNHCR. On behalf of the UNHCR, she facilitated a partnership with the Barça Foundation. She gave a speech in New York at the Futbol Club Barcelona Gala. In September, she moderated the United Nations General Assembly on Transformational Education. And she co-wrote the 2022 UNHCR Educational Report alongside renowned Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton.
From her work actively advocating for refugees to her work onstage, Maker’s impact cannot be denied on or off campus. A theater major with a passion for writing and storytelling, she says “Theater is a way of life. You can’t hide in theater. People see you and you see other people, and that exchange of emotions makes you feel comfortable and safe.”
Theater is a way of life. You can’t hide in theater. People see you and you see other people, and that exchange of emotions makes you feel comfortable and safe.Mary Maker ’23
Maker is especially passionate about sharing BIPOC stories in theater. “When you look at theater all over the world, there’s no voices or bodies of color and if it’s there, it’s usually from the point of slavery or a point that wasn’t written by BIPOC people,” she says. “The reality is that apart from the struggles we go through as BIPOC bodies, there is also love, there is joy, there is so much to us that makes us who we are, not disqualifying the painful parts.”
She actively shares the voices of BIPOC students on campus as the former co-chair of POC Ole Theater, a student organization that aims to increase the diversity in theater by giving BIPOC students the space to share their stories. Her original play, Under the Baobab Tree, was performed by POC Ole Theater in April 2021.
“The baobab is one of the strongest trees that has ever lived on the continent of Africa,” Maker says. “Being able to write this play on the LGBTQIA+ community was really an important piece for me because I come from a country that is not tolerant at all, and being a member of the LGBTQIA+ community is almost impossible, so I was able to write this fiction knowing the cultural history of South Sudan and bringing this play to life.”
Her passion for writing, however, does not stop in the theater. She also has a great love for poetry and has submitted some of her work to UPRISING, an annual student-led art exhibition at St. Olaf that showcases the artwork of Black students, faculty, staff, and alumni. “I write a lot of poetry, and it has been interesting to bring up the issues of refugees through my poetry and perform at different functions,” Maker says. “I’ve been trying to collaborate all this with my actual work as an UNHCR ambassador.”
As an Ole, Maker has had the chance to experiment with and grow in her interests — all while staying true to herself and bringing her own personal flair to everything she does. Maker says, “It has been an amazing thing for me to do on the Hill — learning different styles of music and theater but still understanding who Mary is and bringing Mary into the mix.”