From Liberia to Wilmette and beyond: David Fahnbulleh to speak at refugee group’s gala

Kathy Routliffe | Chicago Tribune|

David Fahnbulleh, 22, is the keynote speaker at the May 5 RefugeeOne gala (RefugeeOne)

It’s been a long journey for David Fahnbulleh; at the age of 7 his family fled war in Liberia. At 11, he and his family traded a refugee camp for the United States, settling first in Wilmette and then in Evanston.

Now he’s a 22-year-old soccer-loving Purdue University student set to graduate May 11 with a degree in construction management, and with a job awaiting him in Chicago after he gets his diploma.

He is also the keynote speaker at a May 5 benefit gala for RefugeeOne.

That Chicago-based refugee resettlement organization welcomed Fahnbulleh’s family to the U.S. in 2007, helping find them housing in Wilmette with assistance from local volunteers. It also provided David’s parents with English classes and helped the entire family win U.S. citizenship, according to Jims Porter, its communications and policy coordinator.

The group’s mission is to welcome and support refugees who flee war, terror and persecution, and it is the largest resettlement agency in Illinois, Porter said. In the last three years it has resettled more than 1,600 refugees, over half of them children, he said.

Fahnbulleh said he didn’t initially think he should speak at RefugeeOne’s gala.

“I don’t really think of myself as special,” he said. “I was just a kid living day to day. But as I talked about it more with people, I realized this wasn’t about what I had accomplished or not accomplished.

“It was a way to tell my story to new people coming here, who could relate to it, and feel like they can make it here too.”

David Fahnbulleh with David and Patti Ray of Wilmette and their sons Aaron and Michael. (RefugeeOne)

Melinah Kano, RefugeeOne’s executive director, said she’s excited about Fahnbulleh’s appearance.

“He’s done so well. The discipline and hard work it has taken him these few years to go to college and go forward in life is amazing,” Kano said.

His story also underscores the community support and partnerships that makes RefugeeOne unique, Kano said. Without volunteers helping refugee families the work would be impossible.

One such volunteer couple was Rick and Helen Sweitzer, who provided housing for the family in Wilmette until they moved to Evanston roughly a year later.

Wilmette residents Patti and David Ray, who also volunteered, eventually became a something of a surrogate family.

So close did they come, David Ray said, that he and Patti began to refer to Fahnbulleh and their twin sons, Aaron and Michael, as “the triplets.” The boys played soccer together on the Wilmette Wings, something Fahnbulleh remembers fondly, and now they hang out “and give each other grief, like brothers do,” Patti Ray said.

“For the past seven or eight years, he’s mostly lived at our house,” Patti Ray said. “Even now, when he comes home from college, he stays at our house.”

The Rays remember the network of friends and families that sprang up to welcome Fahnbulleh and his family, many members of which still live in Evanston.

“It didn’t surprise me at all,” David Ray said. “I think a lot of people pitched in out of the kindness of their hearts, and because of the opportunity to get out of the kind of homogenous bubble we can live in here in Wilmette.”


As for Fahnbulleh, whose teenage work caddying for golfers at the Westmoreland Country Club led to a full-ride scholarship to Purdue, his work ethic and strong moral compass led to his success, Patti Ray said.

“If you met him, you’d think he was kind of quiet and shy, but he has quite a big personality, with a sense of humor and self confidence,” David Ray said.

Patti agreed.

“People gave us credit for supporting him, but honestly, David is a pretty savvy and motivated self-starter,” she said. “He put 100 percent of himself into everything he did.”

Stories like Fahnbulleh’s are common, Kano said, and RefugeeOne wants to continue welcoming refugees to the United States. The group supports background checks for newcomers, she said, noting that refugees are already extremely vetted. The number of refugees allowed into the U.S. was 75,000 three years ago, Kano said. It rose to 110,000 in 2017, but the number was cut to 45,000 this year and at the current pace, the U.S. will take in perhaps 25,000, she said.

“This is against the backdrop of the worst global refugee crisis ever,” Kano said. “We want to hold the administration to its goal of 45,000. Refugees are part of the fabric of our country.”

Source: Chicago Tribune

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