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Outstanding refugees

Together, we are Minnesota.

Outstanding Refugee Awards

The Resettlement Programs Office of the Minnesota Department of Human Services celebrates the strength, courage and resilience of all people in the state. We recognize that there are many Minnesotans with a refugee experience who are making a positive contribution in Minnesota. Every year we honor local leaders and citizens with Outstanding Refugee Awards to recognize former refugees who are making Minnesota a better place for all of us.

People from all over the world call Minnesota home. Refugees are people who have experienced persecution, whose lives were in danger where their country was no longer safe for them. People who arrive in the United States through the refugee program come from different backgrounds and experiences, but they have in common a strong desire to build a safe, new life for their families. 

They are people who are highly motivated to work, to contribute, and, in many cases, to give back in service and volunteerism to help others in their new adopted home. Learn more about refugee programs in Minnesota.

We are surrounded by neighbors, coworkers, employees and friends who have powerful stories of resilience in the face of difficult circumstances, and are showing leadership in small and sometimes large ways to improve their communities in Minnesota. These stories of how residents are positively impacting other Minnesotans are important stories to share. 

The department’s Outstanding Refugee Awards are one way to recognize the individuals in our communities who are making a difference in our neighborhoods, communities and world.

Nominate a refugee

Nominate individuals in one of four categories: new beginnings, entrepreneurship, civic engagement and youth leadership. 

Selected individuals will be recognized and presented with a plaque at a ceremony every June as part of Refugee Recognition Month. 

  • Nominations accepted until midnight, Feb. 28, 2022.
  • Complete a separate form for each person you want to nominate.

2020 recipients of Outstanding Refugee Awards

Civic Engagement Award

Novia Josiah-Isaac, MSW, LGSW, of Maplewood, came to the U.S. as a Karen refugee from Burma in 2004. In 2018, she became the first Karen immigrant to earn a master of social work degree in Minnesota, graduating from the University of St. Thomas. She also holds the distinction of being the first Karen immigrant to be a licensed social worker in the state. Josiah-Isaac works for the Center for Victims of Torture in St. Paul, and has co-authored several publications related to trauma and mental health care. She has given numerous presentations and trainings on how to improve care for refugees, and how to support domestic violence survivors who are also refugees.

Dr. Obsa Abdulla Hassan, MD, of Spring Lake Park, came to the U.S. as an Oromo refugee. He is a medical doctor at Mercy Hospital in Coon Rapids, and he recently opened Axis Family Clinic in Northeast Minneapolis. Hassan has conducted free health screenings with the Oromo Community of Minnesota organization, and he volunteers at Hadi Medical Clinic, a free clinic in Brooklyn Park serving many uninsured clients. He holds many leadership positions in the community with nonprofit organizations such as the International Oromo Health Professionals, Humanitarian Initiative to Relieve the Plight in the Horn of Africa International, Irkoo Dabbaal Association and Oromia Physicians Association.

Hani Haybe of Minneapolis is a nurse who started a free soccer program, Street Soccer Twin Cities, for disadvantaged Twin Cities youth in 2011. Haybe played pick-up soccer in the refugee camp where she grew up, even though soccer was frowned upon for Somali girls. After coming to Minnesota, she continued to play. Haybe has a passion for soccer, but her greater passion is for helping youth. Haybe’s league provides positive social interaction for immigrant youth without the barriers of league fees, uniforms or travel expenses. Street Soccer builds self-esteem for youth and helps them and their families connect to education and life-skills programs if needed.

Rufo Jiru of Shakopee is a chemist by training and profession, but humanitarian at heart. Jiru came to the U.S. as an Oromo refugee, and in 2016, she founded a nonprofit, Anole Sisters, that works to provide support and empowerment to Oromo women through community outreach, microloans, and short-term assistance to families in crisis. Jiru has also been active with the Multicultural Autism Action Network, an organization created by parents of children with disabilities in multicultural communities, ever since witnessing the challenges faced by parents of children with disabilities as a special education interpreter through the St. Paul Public School District. Jiru works tirelessly to connect families with services, provide emotional support and visit with them in their homes. 

Farhiya Iman is one of the owners of Nori Cafe and Creamery in St. Cloud, and she has created a space where there is good food, great Somali tea, and also a safe place where people in Central Minnesota can learn about the culture of their Somali neighbors. Iman works with Unite Cloud, where she facilitates conversations for neighbors to learn about each other. Iman willingly shares her own story and her experience as a refugee from Somalia to help her neighbors understand some of the trauma and loss that people with refugee status endure in their journey to Minnesota. Iman is also a social worker for Stearns County.

Entrepreneur Award

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.

Refugees make an impact in Minnesota

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