True Thao, LICSW, of Cottage Grove, established True Thao Counseling Services, where he and his staff provide bilingual and bicultural mental health services to adolescents and adults. He goes well beyond counseling, organizing food and clothing drives, when necessary, to meet people’s basic needs. Thao provides this capable, compassionate care for his own clients, but also shares his skills in mentoring others. In addition to promoting mental health, Thao values the history of his Minnesota community. He and his brother restored Cedarhurst Mansion, out of love for this Minnesota treasure. Thao, who came to the U.S. as a Hmong refugee, has created jobs and added to the vibrancy of his community.
Amran Abukar of Willmar is a mother, an author and a bridge builder. She is a leader who has helped forge stronger relationships between local Somalis and the wider Willmar community. She currently works as a cultural liaison at Kennedy Elementary School and volunteers as a translator for the local police department. She has written two books: a children’s book, “I Wish I Had Big Ears,” and a historic fiction book, “Burns from Blackhawk,” which tells the struggle that she and other Somalis have gone through. Abukar has worked for Minnesota Legal Aid and has served on the Board of Family Promise of Kandiyohi County.
New Arrival Award
Bugondo (Blaise) Ntibonera of Minneapolis came to Minnesota as a refugee in 2017 after fleeing persecution in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He is passionate about helping others, even while being so close to the transition of coming here as a refugee himself. Using his experience as a recent refugee, Ntibonera helps other refugee families on their resettlement journey, devoting significant time assisting with everything from housing to school enrollment to medical care to budgeting. He also educates the public about the violence and persecution still happening in the Congo, and what they can do to welcome refugees. Ntibonera is a friend to many and a leader in his community.
Young Leader Award
Oballa Oballa of Austin has become a trusted resource for city leaders to understand how local policies impact Austin’s rapidly changing population. Oballa was appointed by Mayor Tom Stiehm to Austin’s Human Rights Commission, and elected by his fellow students as president of the student senate at Riverland College. Oballa, who came to the U.S as an Anuak refugee, is passionate about eliminating food insecurity, and he founded his school’s first ever food pantry. Oballa is also president of LeadMN, which represents 180,000 community and technical college students across the state of Minnesota. He’s garnered statewide, bipartisan support for ending food insecurity on college campuses, resulting in the Minnesota Legislature passing the Hunger Free Campus Act in May 2019.
Ku Mo is a recent graduate of Como Park Senior High School in St. Paul, where she was involved with Upward Bound, volunteering with community service projects and tutoring younger students. Mo came to the U.S. as a Karenni refugee. She joined her school computer club, learning to fix computers to give away to families in need, and became an ambassador to new Karenni students at her school. Mo helped new families find housing, provided transportation and translated mail for families. She is now a freshman at the University of Minnesota majoring in global studies and business. She plans to go to graduate school and gain a master’s degree in nonprofit management to work in her hometown and help the immigrant community.
Past Outstanding Refugee Awards
Learn about the past Outstanding Refugee Award recipients.