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An interview with two Mandela Washington Fellows mentored by Goodwin faculty

Two women in office

Varna Joseph and Suhaila Aboud

July 27, 2018

“We feel so lucky to be here. I’ve never seen a university that is so involved in community service. We have so much to take back home,” shares Suhaila Aboud, a Mandela Washington Fellow from Kenya. She and Varna Joseph Zaki of South Sudan are both at Drexel this summer studying civic leadership and are being mentored by Goodwin’s Department Head of Graduate Studies Anne Converse Willkomm. They join two dozen scholars and leaders from African countries with an academic and professional focus in shaping the civic futures of their home countries. 

According to the Young African Leaders Initiative, the highly competitive “Fellowship will provide up to 700 outstanding young leaders from Sub-Saharan Africa with the opportunity to hone their skills at a US higher education institution with support for professional development after they return home.”

Suhaila works internationally to train and educate health workers on how to prevent and respond to gender-based violence. Since arriving in Philadelphia, she was worked with offices across Drexel and the City to investigate the use of rape kits and forensic evidence in seeking justice for victims. “ It’s something that’s really not addressed in my country and it’s something I really want to have an impact on,” Suhaila continues, “I dream for my Africa, I dream for my country that all women, children and men who are sexually violated can realize justice and that someone will be accountable for what’s happened to them.”

In Sudan, Varna volunteers with multiple human rights organizations and has a passion for working with children. “I want to build a community center for youth, a place where they can feel at home and express their creativity.” Her vision includes “four corners,” where each quadrant holds a unique enrichment activity—from stories and learning games to tutoring and art. Varna shares, “I am an artist and a single mother. I grew up homeless and without much support. I don’t want my child or any child to face the same life.”

The immense passion Suhaila and Varna have for their work is infectious, as is their joy for learning and exploration. When they’re not meeting with professors and mentors, they’re holding discussion groups with the Fellows, enjoying meals in host family homes and dancing in the streets. “I go every Sunday for Afro-salsa dancing at the Rocky Steps,” Varna beams, “I immediately felt at home, and will remember the City of Philadelphia because of it.”

Along with rigorous academic work in civic engagement and leadership, Varna, Suhaila and the Mandela WashingtonFellows at Drexel are also learning quite a lot about US life, customs and perceptions. “I was scared, especially about the Islamophobia, before coming here,” Suhaila adds, “I kept saying ‘I hope I can wear my hijab without being called names.’ But it’s been so wonderful. I put on my hijab every day and nobody notices me or thinks that I’m different from other people. That was the thing that really touched me the mosy.”

For Varna, she remembers, “When I landed the first thing I said was ‘Varna Joseph, welcome to America,’” she continues, “The most outstanding thing I’ve experienced is how all of the professors and our mentors, like Ms. Anne are so welcoming. Everyone at Drexel has shown us a beautiful sense of patience.” She concludes, “In reality, you might see that media places a negative image of us as Africans, but when you visit, you will see a different thing—it is the same when we come to America.”

As a mentor, Anne notes, “I love hearing and learning about their countries, experiences, goals and dreams. I find that exhilarating and interesting. It helps me branch out and learn more about the world. I feel like I’m getting a taste of Africa through their eyes.”

When it comes to learning alongside other young civic leaders from countries across Africa, Suhaila adds, “Most of our problems are similar in a way. People share their experiences and how they are tackling the issue in their country, and I get an opportunity to borrow from what is already working. The more you share, the more you receive.”

Nelson Mandela was a leader who believed in taking us from continent to country,” Varna explains, “If the Fellows now, from the past and in the future work together, we can really make his vision come true.”