As she saw victims of the Rwandan genocide arrive in the United States, many of them illiterate and bewildered by modern city life, Wanjiru Kamau was taken back to her own childhood. She grew up in rural Kenya without running water or electricity, carrying loads on her back that left her permanently scarred.
She needed to help, says Kamau, 69, winner of a 2011 Purpose Prize: "This is why I was educated, to give back" through community service.
See also: Nominate a 2012 Purpose Prize candidate.
In 2000, with her four children grown, Kamau quit her job at Penn State University (where she had come from Kenya, in 1977, to pursue graduate studies in psychological counseling), withdrew $10,000 from her retirement account and moved to Washington, D.C., to start the African Immigrant and Refugee Foundation.
Since then, Kamau's nonprofit organization has helped more than 6,000 immigrants from 45 countries adjust to their new lives in the United States. Many of them arrive with trauma from loss and family separation, severe poverty, cultural and linguistic barriers, and illiteracy.
Bob Sacha/Civic Ventures
"Mama Kamau," the kids call her, and African parents, respectful of age, listen to her. A dozen consultants and some 35 volunteers (including pro bono lawyers and psychologists) help her, and the foundation partners with state and local governments, schools and universities.
Kamau draws no salary, has no private health insurance and became a vegetarian to save on food costs. But, she says with a smile, "There are days I wake up and feel 15."
To learn more about how Kamau's group helps immigrants, watch the video in the player above.