Opening Doors for Fellow Refugees

Lorna Solis fled Nicaragua. Now she’s forming a foundation to help other refugees come to U.S. universities.

Ellis Cose

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Nov 19, 2007 | Updated: 12:56  p.m. ET Nov 19, 2007

Lorna Solis was 10 when she fled the violence in Nicaragua, the same age Abass Hassan Mohamed was when he and his family escaped war-ravaged Somalia. “We’re different, but we’re alike,” said Solis, which is one reason she relates so strongly to Abass’s story. It is also why Solis, director of Latin America and Africa for Institutional Investor, is working with Abass to form a foundation to bring other refugee camp residents to American universities.

As a child Solis lived in Nicaragua, where her father owned a chain of pharmacies in Managua. But during the late 1970s the climate in her homeland radically changed. She recalls going to sleep to the sounds of gunshots and explosions as the Sandinista National Liberation Front fought for control of the government. When the Sandinistas came to power in 1979, the family fled. With the help of a high-ranking American diplomat who was also a close friend, the family made its way to San Francisco. There they joined Solis’s maternal grandmother, who had immigrated some years earlier. Solis had no idea she was embarking on a totally new life path. “I thought I was coming back,” she recalled. “I didn’t take my dolls.” Indeed, the family took virtually nothing.

The Sandinistas seized her father’s pharmacies and his other assets. He eventually took a job working as a mail clerk in an American university and later returned to Nicaragua to retire, never having regained his former wealth. He did recover a refrigerator with a bullet hole in it that the family keeps as a memento. Solis, who attended a Catholic school in San Francisco, earned a master’s degree in tropical conservation and development from the University of Florida, in Gainesville. She met Abass through a mutual friend—a staffer in the Dadaab, Kenya, office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees who had bought Abass’s plane ticket to America. Like many others who have met him, Solis was impressed with Abass’s warmth, his dignity and his determination. She bought him his first set of soccer cleats and has played the role of an older sister, watching with pride as he has excelled in his studies.

When we spoke the week before Thanksgiving, Solis was preparing for a two-week visit to the Dadaab refugee camp, during which she would meet with Abass’s family, camp residents and camp officials to work out some of the details of her new project, which aspires to emulate the work of the World University Services of Canada (WUSC). Every year WUSC, based in Ottawa, offers refugees from camps around the world—including Dadaab—the opportunity to attend Canadian universities. Solis hopes her Rose Trust Foundation, which is named for her maternal grandmother and for which she has already lined up several potential donors, will open doors in the United States.

The lesson Solis has learned from her current work, which involves visiting and writing reports on many Latin American and African countries, is that the governments in far too many cases are undemocratic and corrupt. She would like to see many beneficiaries of her program return home and play a role in improving their governments. She believes, in other words, that education can turn refugees into change agents. One can only hope she is right. But for what it’s worth, it is the identical belief held by many of the young people I met in Dadaab.