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Omar Obaydi’s Rise from Resettled Refugee to RISE Camp’s Cultural Broker

Omar Obaydi immigrated to the United States nearly 7 years ago but you wouldn’t know it was that recent unless he told you.

Dressed in a green polo shirt and sharp slacks, Obaydi walks around with what feels like a perpetual smile. He’s both confident and approachable.

That’s a good thing because in his free time, of which there is very little, Obaydi serves as a volunteer “Cultural Broker” at World Relief Durham’s RISE Camp, which was founded three years ago as part of a support system network for local refugee and immigrant children.

The issues that he’s helping the kids navigate vary from day to day. One day, it might be helping kids from Jordan and Syria understand how existing cultural tensions stem from Jordan’s involvement in the Syrian Civil War and other days, it might be brokering an argument over what kind of candy is the most delicious.

“Candy is awesome and we all want candy but remember that too much candy can be bad for your teeth,” he explained to a group of young boys during the latter.

The kids that attend the camp each year come primarily from minority, non-Spanish speaking countries including Afghanistan, Syria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iran, and the Central African Republic. For many different reasons — including increased violence as result of civil wars, repression, and ethnic clashes — they and their families were all forced to leave the dangers of their home countries.

Omar was no different. He was born and raised in Iraq until 2004 and then spent another 8 years in Jordan before his family made the overseas journey to land in North Carolina. And when they arrived with no home, no job opportunities, and very little English-speaking skills, World Relief Durham was there to help by providing funding for their first three months of rent and bills, introducing him to English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, and generally helping Omar and his family adjust and adapt to unfamiliar cultures and traditions.

In fact, the team at World Relief had such a profound influence on his life that he feels compelled to give back. He says he can relate to what these kids are experiencing because he’s been there himself.

“I can say it’s personally very rewarding for me to see my impact. They really appreciate it, especially in this difficult time, when they see there are people coming every time trying to help them and are there for them,” he shared. “We don’t have a very welcoming environment for immigrants and refugees at the time unfortunately but World Relief is doing a great job and not really making them feel that way. They’re making them feel welcome. I’m grateful to be able to play even a minor role in that process.”

Obaydi is no slacker. He’s been working non-stop since arriving in the United States: on perfecting his English skills, on finding his career path, and just plain working to support his family since his parents are elderly and aren’t able to do so themselves.

He even graduated from North Carolina State University last year with a major in political science and a minor in psychology. He says he wants to be a lawyer because he grew up in a country torn apart from a lack of laws and that the legal system — as well as his understanding of his rights — are what saved him as a refugee.

But for now, Omar works as a driver for Uber and Lyft, for Delta Airlines’ customer service department, and at his position within World Relief Durham. That last position is the most important to him.

“It may be selfish but when I walk [the halls of the camp], all the kids they come and hug me a lot. They keep hugging me and saying ‘hey, Mr. Omar, Mr. Omar come to our class.’ So that’s rewarding in a personal way because I can see that I’m doing something right here. I’m leaving a positive impact on the kids,” explains Omar. “I believe the kids, they really don’t know how to compliment someone. They always say the truth that’s on their mind. With the kids, if they don’t like you, they’ll tell you that. When I see that reaction, I can tell they’re not just being nice because I’m nice. They’re nice because I’m leaving a good impact on them. It makes my day every day.”

Omar’s presence at RISE Camp is making a difference for the kids, just as he hoped. But it’s also having a profound effect on someone else: himself.

“Omar is one of those people who consistently goes above and beyond in all that he does. He doesn’t just walk through life doing only what’s asked of him, instead he processes things fully and feels things deeply,” shared Rob Callus, World Relief Durham’s Refugee and Immigrant Youth Services Coordinator. “In just the time that Omar has been helping World Relief, he has grown so much.”

And his impact doesn’t end when the camp is over. To be clear, Omar volunteers with World Relief Durham year-round, engaging students in educational opportunities and creating a relationship with the individual kids that has progressed from friend to mentor.

“A great example is when we first started our tutoring program at Hope Valley Elementary. The kids looked to Omar as a friend, like an older brother who was fun for a few games of soccer. As a tutor, he desired to grow more in his relationships and work with them on a deeper level as a mentor and model for hard work, dedication, and healthy integration in the U.S.,” said Callus. “It was such a gift watching Omar accomplish this. By the end of the school year, Omar had his groups begging for reading time, flying through academic exercises, and fully wanting to be there. Omar’s love of learning and hard work truly inspired them.”

This past summer, Omar and other camp counselors were able to have that positive impact on and create relationships with 120 students, thanks to a $25,000 grant from United Way of the Greater Triangle. That grant helped World Relief Durham divert those students from experiencing summer learning loss and will also be able to help another 80 students with their academic performance during the school year.

The latter will specifically focus on helping students — students much like Omar once was — build the English language skills necessary to succeed in the classroom so that they too can become just like Omar.

They can become game-changers.