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Mary Maker, Refugee Activist and Co-Founder

South Sudanese refugee Mary Maker is a refugee education activist, renowned speaker and philanthropist, currently serving as a Goodwill Ambassador with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.


I clearly remember the first acceptance into college for our students

In 2021, she co-founded a non-profit which provides higher education opportunities to students at Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. The PIE caught up with her after she gave an impassioned keynote to delegates at The PIE Live North America on ‘how to win’ as a refugee.

What has been your proudest career moment so far?

Creating Elimisha Kakuma which is a non-profit that helps refugee kids access higher education and now seeing them in their sophomore year.

Tell me about a defining moment in your career, or lifetime? 

Deciding to start Elimisha Kakuma. Despite growing up in a refugee [camp] myself; struggling through the realities of a refugee camp and fighting my way to get to college, giving back in terms of creating access was my biggest defining moment in life. I clearly remember the first acceptance into college for our students. My team and I were tearing up, in disbelief, laughing and having a huge sigh of relief. We didn’t know it would be possible. The students also knew it was not a sure deal. That to me is more rewarding than my own success story of beating all odds.

What’s the biggest challenge to you at the moment in the work that you’re doing?

Feeling like just a story and a number. Having to own that and to feel like there is so much to Mary Maker. There is so much to every single refugee, more than just the refugee and that title.

What advice would you give to someone who is considering embarking on a study abroad experience?

Chances will pass you if you actually don’t create them, you are the chance. I don’t believe in luck. I feel like you get to create the luck for every single person. So don’t wait for other people to come and give you the resources to do it.

What podcast or book would you recommend which sends a message you think the international education sector should hear?

It’s called Little Bee by Chris Clive. In the beginning part of it, he talks about scars. Scars are not ugly, that is what the scars make us want to feel like. But scars are beautiful, they are a sign of survival. Sometimes you have hidden scars within you, whether it’s mental or physical. Always see them as something – as a sign of survival. Then move past survival, and live.

What’s the most important skill for someone working in international education to have? 

Networking and following up. Networking to me means creating visibility and advocating for what you believe in. In international education people understand the language of academia, the value of education and the creation of spaces for those whose chances are minuscule. When one learns the power of networking they are able to start uncomfortable conversations, call people in instead of out, and new relationships where access is possible are made.

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