Shining a spotlight on a South Sudanese trailblazer in Canada

Omaha, Nebraska, USA, (NSV)
When Michael Nuul Mayen ran and lost his bid for the city councilor in Brooks, Alberta, in 2010, not only did he make news as the only South Sudanese to ever run for elective office in Canada, but the whole experience has also steeled his resolve to do even more. Now, two years later, with his sights set on an even greater cause, Michael is hoping to bridge the gap most immigrants, war-affected refugees or newcomers face in Canada by building hopes and eliminating illiteracy, one language center at a time.

As Founder and Executive Director of Language Center for Newcomers (LCFN), a 501 (c) 3 non-profit literacy organization based in Brooks, Alberta, Canada, Michael and his army of volunteers are providing training and education to diverse groups of adults, youths and children as a way to enhance transition to life in Canada.

Under Michael’s leadership, LCFN has offered and conducted ESL trainings for adults and summer training programs for youths and children, all on a shoestring budget. At the center, Michael himself teaches ESL and Citizenship and immigrant youth summer school classes, in addition to holding a job as an immigration consultant. He worked incredibly hard—logging over 188,000 hours in volunteer time in the process of founding LCFN. Looking back, he said his discipline, the drive to push himself and hard work allowed him to create the organization. He also credited this initial success to a wonderful team of supporters who gave their time, resources and talent.

“I think all adults including myself have a moral responsibility to invest in children and treat them without distinction; that is my own obligation. It is the LCFN’s mandate to educate and nurture children to have a better future,” he said in an Interview with The New Sudan Vision.

Michael is no stranger to the kind of life he now has ventured to improve for most immigrants. As one of tens of thousands of former child refugees who have come to be known as Lost Boys of Sudan as one way the Western media sought to bring attention to the north-South war in the early 2000s, he knows what it is like to be a refugee at a very young age.

Before immigrating to Canada in 1998, he went through the trials and incredible hardships of life in refugee camps. In 1987, at the height of the bloodiest Sudanese civil war, children were forced to flee to Ethiopia and then to Kenya. It was in Kenya that he was selected to come to Canada on a refugee resettlement program. And it is now in Canada that he is building the hopes and the dreams of those who have and continue to come to call the host nation their second home.

A language center is born

Michael created the Center in 2010 as a way to focus his attention on the single most challenge refugees or immigrants face when they come to Canadian society: adjusting to new life. The Center has programs aimed at breaking down barriers to integrating into society.

He is doing that through the LCFN flagship programs centered on providing educational, technological and employment skills. Michael gives presentations to different schools, churches and libraries as a way of sharing with host communities while broadening the understanding the experience of many immigrants and refugee

Michael is a firm believer in the overall philosophy that all segments of society must be empowered through education. His awareness of the plight of many immigrants, especially those who lack necessary education or skill sets, who are always at a disadvantage and who tend to fall through cracks allowed him to venture on at least tackling the issue. He knows many immigrants face communication, technological and English language barriers, not to mention the digital divide among immigrants.

“LCFN believes these individuals must acquire employable skills once they completed their programs,” Michael told The New Sudan Vision.

It is no surprise one of LCFN ‘s objectives is “To teach English as Second Language (ESL) skills to immigrants, newcomers and refugees communities and develop the skills, information, and support they need for entry and continued success in the Canadian labor market.”

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It is LCFN’s belief that such a segment of society needs skill sets that are transferable whether between jobs and even in daily social life.

It is why Michael, his staff and the board of directors are working around the clock to execute projects and measures aimed at fully integrating into society the newcomers. At the Center, children and youth get unlimited access to computer trainings. The center also prides itself on its exceptional approach that promotes education to adults.

Part of that pride is in the open door policy that encourages immigrants from every nationality to come and learn the English language without abandoning their native languages. It is why the center also has a literacy program called ‘immigrants educating immigrants’, basically allowing knowledgeable individuals to teach classes to children and adult in their own languages. For example, Dinka language is taught at the center.

The center has also acted as a place where children and youth come to socialize and boost their self-esteem. It is why the center teaches area youth about benefits of education and avoiding crime and gang activities.

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Kids at class at the language centre

Currently, the Center has 600 clients that are being served. But if the Center gets enough funding, Michael said that number would jump to over 1,200 people by next year.

In the past year, Michael has received great response from individuals working with nonprofit groups in Asia and Africa who like his approach to literacy. He says this plan could be replicated in the future in different parts of the globe, including his native country of South Sudan. As for now he is laying the foundation here in Canada. He hopes to enlist the help of private-public partnership to fund the projects LCFN will be undertaking.

A father of two young children himself, Michael wants the best for all children.

“I belief that all children regardless of their backgrounds should be educated and empowered and that is why LCFN offers many varieties of programs such as crime prevention and gang deterrent programs, because they are our future leaders,” he said.

Accolades for community organizing—including blazing the trails in politics

Michael has not rested since he set foot on Canadian soil. Few years after arriving, he co-founded the Lost Boys and Girls of Sudan in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He went on to receive few awards: Human Relations and Outstanding Performance awards from Dale Carnegie Training; Black History Month Appreciation award from the City of Brooks; and award of appreciation from South Sudanese Association of Manitoba.

A 2007 graduate of International Development Studies from the University of Winnipeg, Michael also served in various leadership capacities. During his time at the University of Winnipeg, he founded the African Student Association, serving as its president from 2004-2007.

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In this picture, Michael is receiving his degree during the convocation from Honorable Dr. Lloyd Axworthy, Former Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs and the current President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Winnipeg.

Michael also served as the Global Action Coordinator for the Menno Simons College from 2005-2006, including his trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo where he served as national observer during the first democratic elections in 2006.

Michael then went on to blaze the trails in electoral politics when he contested the local city council seat in 2010. And, although he was unsuccessful, his run for the city councilor was inspiring as it became seared into people’s memories.                                                                 

Michael exhibited charisma and leadership qualities early on. Born to Dinka parents in Baping, a village on the outskirt of Wang’ulei Payam in Twic East County, Jonglei State, South Sudan, Michael enjoyed good yet brief upbringing. He benefited from exceptional parenting, from caring and loving parents to a community that provided cultural values that nurtured him —something that definitely played a key role in how he faced life in the crucible of Africa’s longest civil war.

His first job and passion was in herding family cattle before war intervened and cut that short. While in refugee camp in Ethiopia those great leadership qualities became handy as he took care of younger children.

“I think the tough situation inspired me. When I was a child living in the bush without guardians that taught me and now it is my personal responsibility to help children to realize their own potential. We have missed many things during our childhoods in Sudan, because of the civil wars and I don’t want to see the children growing up with the similar situation that I passed through during those days,” he said.

Lessons—and advice on leadership

Michael has learned a few lessons since founding the Language Center for Newcomers in 2010. The first lesson he has learned right off the bet is for people to stick to their organizational visions.

“I have learned many lessons since establishing the LCFN, and I can advise some people that stick to your vision and ignore some individuals who have different views about your goals,” he said.

Michael combined his persuasive skills, passion and commitment to recruit volunteers who have made sure the project is sustained as far as maintaining all the important programming.

When one of his mentors asked him a while back why he worked so hard on something he does not get a salary for, Michael’s response was that he wants people to be able to look back decades later and say that there were people who made a difference here by pointing to LCFN as the inspiration.

He has done an excellent job of recruiting talented team of volunteers who he has managed to retain so far— retention being something that is critically important in every corporation or institutions of learning.

“I learned that resources are not only solution, because I have seen some organizations that have many resources but they don’t have commitment to execute their visions/goals.”

But if there is also one lesson he won’t forget, it is running the center on a shoestring budget. “It is not easy to provide services to more than 600 clients without salary,” he said.

At the same time, given this leadership experience and the ability to face challenges with more confidence, Michael said that he is prepared to lead the organization into the future.

 Michael with his President after U of W Convocation1


Michael chatting with the Honoarable Dr. Lloyd Axworthy, Former Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs and the current President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Winnipeg after receiving his degree from the University of Winnipeg.



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Michael (right) with the Honourable Lindsay Blackett and the Language Centre Delegates.



 Click here to find out more about Michael and his centre through this video



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