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‘God’s work’ By Ronald W. Powell

Posted on March 27th, 2008.

Ugandan refugee and his organization help others build new lives for themselves in the United States

‘God’s work’ By Ronald W. Powell

March 27, 2008

Like many energetic 4-year-olds in Southern California, Emmanuel Otoo loves to hop aboard his skateboard and glide away, giggling all the while.

Except he has no forearms and hands and no calves or feet because of a birth defect. So he rides on his stomach.

JOHN GIBBINS / Union-Tribune
Ugandan refugee Emmanuel Otoo, 4, and his family were brought to the United States with help from Walter Lam, who runs the Alliance for African Assistance. Emmanuel was born without forearms, hands, calves and feet.

Emmanuel was born in a dusty, sprawling refugee camp in the Kenyan desert. His mother, Christine Otoo, feared that she would have to be constantly by his side to do what he could not do for himself. More than that, she worried that his disabilities and the family’s life as Ugandan refugees would crush any hope for her son to become self-sufficient.

The bleak prospects changed last year because of Walter Lam, a Ugandan refugee living in San Diego who has made assisting refugees his life’s work.

After visiting with the family in the Kenyan refugee camp during a United Nations-sanctioned visit in 2006, Lam initiated talks with the U.S. State Department that led to Emmanuel and his family moving to San Diego last year.

Emmanuel has been measured for prostheses at Rady Children’s Hospital, with a long-range plan that he will one day have the ability to walk and master dexterity.

“It’s so nice, so nice,” said Okello Otoo, Emmanuel’s uncle, of the family’s new home in San Diego. “I never thought there could be a life like this.”

JOHN GIBBINS / Union-Tribune
Walter Lam talked with Emmanuel and his 2-year-old sister, Golda, during a visit at the apartment the children share with their mother and uncle in Normal Heights.

Lam, president and chief executive officer of the Alliance for African Assistance, knows the feeling. He twice fled repression and war in Uganda.

The first time, he escaped the bloody regime of dictator Idi Amin in 1977, staying in a Kenyan refugee camp until Amin’s ouster in 1979. Shortly afterward, he returned to the tree-lined, bustling streets of Kampala, the Ugandan capital, only to be driven out again by civil war in 1985.

He moved to San Diego in 1986 and said he cannot believe the arc his life has followed. He arrived with nothing and now operates a nonprofit group with a $1.5 million annual budget that serves 7,000 people a year.

His experience gives him hope that other refugees can prosper in the United States, and he and his organization work to help them get started.

The organization, at 5952 El Cajon Blvd., offers English classes, job training and placement, translation assistance, child care, computer training and access, financial budgeting, after-school tutoring and, since August, a health clinic with hours six days a week.

It also operates a computer refurbishing laboratory in which donated PCs are reconditioned and given to clients.

Working with the State Department, alliance workers find apartments for refugees heading to San Diego and escort them to their new residences. For a touch of home, the organization finds people to prepare food from the newcomers’ native country that is ready when they walk in the door.

Lam, 53, said his organization has expanded over the years to meet refugee needs. He said the next step may be the development of affordable apartments.

“All of the services we offer are geared toward helping them to become self-sufficient as quickly as possible,” he said.

After spending sometimes years in refugee camps, arrival in the United States can be disorienting and lonely, Lam said.

“When I first came, I felt like I’d lost everything in life,” he said. “I felt like I didn’t have a country that was behind me, that I didn’t have anybody to identify with.”

Lam was a newcomer without friends or family. The people he most identified with were the homeless people he encountered while working for St. Vincent de Paul Village.

To further establish himself, he worked other jobs: security guard, school-bus driver, dishwasher in a school cafeteria.

He left behind a wife and three children in Africa with whom he hoped to reunite later – something that didn’t happen for two years. By that time, one of his sons had died after being brutally beaten by Ugandan police.

“There is nothing as painful as outliving a child,” he said.

In 1988, he began visiting with newly arrived refugees in their sparsely furnished apartments. Many of them were sleeping on the floor.

Lam decided he would try to help. He began driving his van to the city’s dump, retrieving discarded beds, sofas, microwaves and other appliances that he would give the refugees.

He had found a church home at La Jolla Presbyterian Church, where some members urged him to apply for nonprofit status so they and others could make tax-deductible donations.

In the early 1990s, the church gave the new nonprofit group $7,000 to start a thrift store in North Park. It was seed money for what would become a wide-ranging assistance center.

“I always say that $7,000 came with a lot of blessings from God,” said Lam, who holds a degree in agricultural engineering.

He hired refugees at the thrift store who learned how to interact with customers, count U.S. currency and operate a cash register. The workers soon parlayed those skills into cashier jobs at groceries, department stores, gas stations and other businesses.

By 1993, a county employee visited the thrift store and suggested that it begin documenting its job-training successes and the organization’s other charitable activity. In 1995, the documentation helped the alliance obtain its first grant from the county of $150,000.

“We didn’t believe it,” Lam said with a laugh. “When I was called to sign the contract, I forgot the spelling of my name.”

That contract was awarded for an alliance program that helps refugees on public assistance obtain jobs. The organization has been so successful in placing people in the hospitality industry, security guard companies and Indian casinos that its contract has been renewed each year and totals about $300,000 this fiscal year.

“The message that we give refugees is that you cannot be selective – especially at the beginning,” said Lam, whose organization still operates a thrift store near Kansas Street and El Cajon Boulevard. “Get your foot in there and let people know you have the American work ethic.”

In addition to its paid staff, the alliance depends on volunteers for tasks large and small. Lam’s fellow parishioners at La Jolla Presbyterian help tutor the 50 students in the organization’s after-school program.

La Jolla Presbyterian pastor Paul Cunningham said the volunteer work is part of the mission of the church and allows congregants to meet and assist people from different cultures.

“The church is not just about what we’re doing in La Jolla,” Cunningham said.

While African refugees dominated the alliance’s client roles in its early days, it now also serves Burmese refugees fleeing government repression and Iraqis escaping war.

With so many hot spots for war and political persecution around the world, Lam does not see an end to the need for refugee assistance.

“This is God’s work,” he said.

Ronald W. Powell: (619) 293-1258;

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