Talking World Refugee Day with DreamSpeaker Volunteer Abyssinia Lissanu

Did you know that June 20th is World Refugee Day? Celebrated around the world, the occasion aims to raise awareness about the thousands of people forced to flee violence and persecution worldwide and to honor their resilience.

Abyssinia Lissanu, Program Officer with the Bureau of Population, Refugees, & Migration

Here at DreamWakers, we’re commemorating World Refugee Day by shining a light on one of our extraordinary professional volunteers, Abyssinia Lissanu, Program Officer with the Bureau of Population, Refugees, & Migration at the U.S. Department of State. In this role, Abyssinia oversees U.S. government programs in Mexico and Central America that provide humanitarian assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, and other vulnerable populations.

Earlier this year, we had the honor of connecting Abyssinia with a group of DreamWakers scholars from Thrive Public Schools in San Diego, California. Ms. Amy Liechty, a school counselor with Thrive, reached out to DreamWakers looking for someone who could speak from experience as an immigrant or a child of immigrants. Many of Ms. Liechty’s students, having been impacted by migration, were looking for a role model who could relate to their experiences and encourage them to navigate high school, college, and beyond. A first-time DreamWakers speaker, Abyssinia blew us away with her message and ability to relate with the students.

In her first flashchat, a student asked: “What made you get interested in Foreign Affairs?” Abyssinia shared an important experience from her childhood:

My interest started, funnily enough, when I moved to a very homogenous small town in Kentucky. As a young child, at school I would get a lot of questions from other students who didn’t know where I was from, such as “Why do you wear braids?” or “why does your food smell so weird?” At first, these questions made me not want to be Ethiopian at all. I would tell my parents to only speak to me in English or not to send me to school with Ethiopian food. Each time, my mom and dad would calmly refuse, and I would get so angry. ‘How can you refuse when I’m teased for being different every day?’ They pulled me aside and said, ‘Abby, you have the opportunity to be a cultural ambassador. Most of these kids have never even left Kentucky, let alone seen the other parts of the United States. They haven’t been lucky enough to have parents like you from another country to teach them what it’s like.’ That really prompted me to think differently about myself. From then on, I would bring in my food and share with my classmates. I tried to be an ambassador to see where people were coming from with their questions and to teach them that we are all the same people. That work being a cultural ambassador in Kentucky influenced my current work at the State Department.

In honor of World Refugee Day, we followed up with Abyssinia to hear more about her important work at the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration. Check out the Q&A below to learn more about her work, and join the 2019 #StepWithRefugees movement today get involved yourself!


Q: Why don’t we start off by explaining your role at the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration?

A: I am currently a fellow through a Princeton-run program at the US Department of State. I started off as a fellow in the African Affairs Bureau and I currently work as a fellow in the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration. My fellowship program allows for rotations within the State Department or other federal agencies. In making my decision, I interviewed with different bureaus, spoke to different contacts, and decided that I wanted to switch regions — so I went from working on Africa to working on Latin America — and topics — so I went from working on security and justice issues to now working on refugee systems and humanitarian assistance.

Q: What drew you to this bureau?

A: I am the child of a refugee, or I should say, an asylum seeker who became a recognized refugee in the U.S., and I’ve always been drawn to the idea of working on humanitarian assistance issues. I thought it was a really good meeting of my interests and the people who work here are fabulous…I’ve also been lucky enough to work for a lot of women and I’ve seen how these women are really great at empowering me to think about issues deeply and to do work that is hard but also very rewarding. The average 24-year old may not have access to this kind of opportunity, so it’s incredible that I get to work here.

Q: What is one thing you would like to leave our audience with?

A: I think it’s really important to encourage kids that no matter where you come from, you can contribute to American society, even in ways that you didn’t anticipate. I would never have thought when I went to college that I’d get involved in diplomacy or with the State Department and I’ve really loved it. I think the State Department needs more employees who come from different backgrounds, such as people who are the first in their families to go to college, who come from socioeconomically disadvantaged circumstances, or who were raised in rural states, like my home state of Kentucky. The State Department also needs employees who identify as the first-generation of their family to live in this country . Especially working in diplomacy, it’s not often messaged as well as it could be that America’s diplomats should look like America. And for me, that was a big mental change I needed to make — that I too could be a diplomat because there’s no reason why I couldn’t also be considered American in the eyes of everybody else.


U.S. educators working with 4th-12th-grade students, if you’re interested in booking a DreamWakers speaker from the U.S. Department of State, please apply today here and note your speaker preference in your application form.

If you’re a Princeton student interested in learning more about SINSI, check out this link for more information. Graduate students interested in diplomacy can also check out the Presidential Management Fellowship for more information.

Don’t forget to check out the United Nations Refugee Agency for how to get your friends and family involved in celebrating World Refugee Day!

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