The Growing Leaders program exists to propel young people into abundant life. This is one of the reasons we celebrate BIG when we see a Growing Leader begin to soar. 

Rukaiya completed the Growing Leaders program last year. She’s the oldest of three kids and has been living in Clarkston ever since she and her family arrived in the U.S. five years ago. They had fled the Democratic Republic of the Congo. 

“I’m from the Congo, but most of my childhood was in Uganda. There, they teach British English, so when I came to the United States I had a British accent. Sometimes teachers would not understand what I was saying, and other times I wouldn’t understand what they were saying,” Rukaiya laughs. 

She first got connected to Friends of Refugees when she joined the garden club in 10th grade. Through the garden club, she learned about volunteer opportunities–including work at the Jolly Avenue garden. “But I was too busy to do Growing Leaders,” Rukaiya says. She was involved in several clubs and extracurricular activities. 

“Then, the pandemic struck. None of my clubs were meeting anymore,” Rukaiya recalls. That’s when she was referred to the Growing Leaders program. Rukaiya eagerly joined. Soon, she was spending every Wednesday afternoon at the garden. It became an oasis for her. 

“The garden welcomes everyone,” Rukaiya says. From her family’s old apartment, she had a clear view of the garden. “I would look out and see people from all over the world together in the garden. I would see them trying to talk to each other, even though they didn’t speak the same language. That’s what I loved the most. People who don’t even speak the same language could connect with each other there.” 

Rukaiya would connect with other Growing Leaders and with the Jolly Avenue Garden staff like Katie Hiebert and Erin Davenport. Rukaiya credits the access to people like Miss Katie with helping her get into college. 

“I was applying to college during the pandemic, and my school administration was really overwhelmed and was not doing a few important things I needed them to do, like sending transcripts to colleges. Miss Katie coached us on how to advocate for ourselves in a respectful way,” Rukaiya explains. 

Now, Rukaiya is about to complete her first semester at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, GA. “I wouldn’t be at this school if it weren’t for Friends of Refugees. Miss Katie helped me apply and she told me about scholarship opportunities. Without those things, I would not be able to attend.” 

Rukaiya is still exploring possibilities for what she wants to do post-graduation, but she’s clear about what others can do to support students like her. “I want people to know that anything you give to a student, books or scholarship or support, can change lives. Having someone who believes in you and wants to support you helps so much.” 

We are honored to come alongside friends like Rukaiya and watch them grow into abundant life. Your support and encouragement makes it possible for us to move forward with friends like her. Next year, we are planning to expand our Growing Leaders program to welcome even more friends like Rukaiya. Click here if you want to be a part of that.

Rukaiya Masika Early Spring 2021