After arriving in New Jersey in the United States with her husband in 1999, Dorothy Ssebakka faced the unknown. She had briefly worked in Uganda, co-owning a cloths shop with her husband Raphael on Luwum Street in Kampala.
After living and working in a new environment for six years, Ssebakka kept battling a certain sense of lack of belonging, and was perpetually feeling invisible in the White environment.
“You know how you live in Uganda and you have all this extended family, but here it was just the two of us,” she says. Ssebakka, now a medic, says it was lonely because their first Ugandan friend was hardly available because she was always at work.
“You would be in a situation where you don’t know your place; you just keep trying to navigate a new society,” she says.
It was after this experience that Ssebakka realised that there was need to address challenges faced by immigrants, which she had personally encountered. This was the beginning of Women of Purpose International (WOPI) in Boston.
On June 24, 2005, Ssebakka held her first WOPI breakfast with just the help of a camera person.
“The purpose of the organisation was to call out people, and tell them that we need to connect as Ugandans, and stop living in the shadows. Plus, where we could, also lend a hand to one other,” She says.
Today, she holds annual WOPI conferences in Massachusetts with a turn up of between 250 to 500 people.
“We hold a three-day conference every August, carrying a different theme each year. The theme for last year, for example, was ‘The Organic Child’, while that of 2018 was ‘Light for Life,” She says.
She says they convince immigrants to return to school because the professionals earn more than those who are unskilled.
“We named it Women of Purpose International but it also caters for the youth and marrieds through spirituality, counselling, and mentoring programmes,” she says.
They help Ugandan immigrants to know each other so they avoid instances where people fall sick and no one even knows, situations that she says leads some into depression.
“We visit the sick, elderly, the bereaved, and people who have generally fallen on hard times just to let them know that there’s a Ugandan community. We show them that they need not to hide, thinking there’s no one to help.”
Ms Irene Grace, a Ugandan living in Boston, Massachusetts, says it was not easy adjusting after leaving Uganda 20 years ago. But she says with the help WOPI she has been able to pick up her life again.
“Through her workshops and conferences, I was able to pick up my dreams again and go back to school to do the job that I really loved, which was teaching. I feel so good to be able to attend the various outreaches, and it has given me a sense of belonging,” she says.
Reaching different worlds
Besides being there for the Ugandan immigrant community, Ssebakka has also decided to give back home.
She says she realised that there were also other challenges back home which needed attention.
“Besides being a mother, I’m a God-fearing person too. So I’ve often been convicted to lend a hand with the few resources I have; to provide for necessities to the common child, especially in the poverty-stricken areas such as ghettos and villages,” she says.
Ms Ritah Aliguma, the founder of the Ritah Aliguma Foundation, says they currently get support from WOPI.
“Dorothy invited me for the Women of Purpose International conference to speak, and I presented about community work in line with what I do. And interestingly, she supported 20 children with uniforms, scholastic materials and school fees,” Aliguma says.
Ssebakka says when people come together to create change, the sky is always the limit. “We can try as much, but if we all joined hands as Ugandans, how much more could we do?” she concludes.