June 20th is World Refugee Day. It’s a day to honor those who have been forced to flee their home countries and recognize their courage. It’s also a time to recognize the ways in which we can create opportunities for refugees. In this interview, Awisi Bustos discusses the importance of accessibility and what World Refugee Day means to her.
A history of diplomacy
Awisi Bustos sees herself a “byproduct of diplomacy.” She speaks five languages, is a Doctor of Law, and has centered her life around creating resources for those in need.
She grew up under her father’s influence, a diplomat with a prolific history in Ghana. He held several positions in Ghana’s foreign ministry. He worked in various Embassies abroad as a civil servant, and served as Ghana’s Ambassador to Ethiopia, Ghana’s Deputy Secretary of State, Secretary to Ghana’s president and culminated his career serving the entire continent of Africa as the Deputy Chairperson of the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Her father’s work gave her the opportunity to live “all over the world:” Cuba, Ghana, Belgium, Ethiopia, and the United States. Her upbringing in diplomacy and the warm, friendly people she met in her various communities became a touchstone for her drive to serve the vulnerable. Soon, Bustos would develop a method of effecting change and advocating for human rights through public service.
Why the Quad Cities?
When Bustos was attending college at Purdue University in Indiana to solidify her own humanitarian future, she learned about an opportunity with the Governor’s Office of Constituent Affairs (GOCA) fellowship. It was a way to experience the inner workings of state government firsthand.
“It was less than a week, just a few days before it was due, and I sent in my application every day,” Bustos said.
It was an incredible opportunity. The application was finally accepted, and she packed her things to move to Springfield, Illinois. While working under Governor Quinn as a constituent Affairs Fellow in the GOCA fellowship, she was surrounded by people who were equally motivated to get things done.
Bustos had always had an interest in human rights and learning how different governing bodies intersect. Thanks to her father, she already understood how to approach people and situations in a way that was both sensitive and effective. The fellowship gave her the governmental experience she needed to strategize her interests into reality. After her fellowship, she went on to become the Director of Policy and Training for Illinois Guardianship and Advocacy Commission, a state agency dedicated to advocating for the legal, human rights and dignity of adults with disabilities throughout Illinois.
Half a decade later, Bustos moved to Rock Island with her husband to pursue an opportunity as a Senate Aide to the U.S. Senator Richard J. Durbin. There, she could settle down and work on her most pressing initiatives. She processed immigration cases through the Senator’s office and volunteered at World Relief on the side. To Bustos, volunteering with refugees seemed like a great way to get involved in her community and to give back to people who had sacrificed so much.
Touching the lives of many
She volunteered with Leah Hodge in the Youth Mentoring Program. By relating to youth from different cultures and sharing her experiences, Bustos could provide meaningful support that reflected their unique backgrounds. She would connect students to resources, give pep talks, and help with “whatever was needed.” She wanted students to feel empowered to own their own futures.
“Just because this is your circumstance or where you find yourself now doesn’t mean there are no opportunities for you, your family, or your community,” Bustos would tell them. “I was very passionate,” she added.
When COVID-19 hit, she realized just how urgently the community needed access to services. They needed someone to advocate for them. And although she could no longer volunteer, she stayed connected to the organizations and maintained the valuable relationships she had built over time. In 2021, she left Durbin’s office and joined the Illinois Department of Human Services.
As the Senior Policy Advisor to the Secretary at IDHS, Bustos has spent the last year working on a myriad of initiatives ranging from making the grant application process more equitable and accessible, to anti-poverty and gun violence prevention initiatives throughout the State.
The agency itself provides Illinoisans in poverty and who are facing other economic challenges with vital safety net services to ensure a life of dignity and opportunity.
“We’re very relentless about meeting those goals, not just superficially to check boxes, but in an intentional way,” Bustos said, “and we measure results to ensure we’re constantly providing for people . . . and connecting them to the appropriate services and agencies. I’m constantly accessible to World Relief, and to various community partners,” she continued.
For Bustos, the most refreshing thing is seeing the leadership at IDHS prioritize services that are equitable and accessible for all. As a first-generation immigrant, she’s especially grateful for the resources available to immigrants and refugees.
“Your office provides citizenship classes,” she said, “I went through the [citizenship] process. I would not have been able to go through that process if not for all the amazing resources out there.”
The international universe
And although Bustos isn’t a refugee, she can relate to the sense of finding “home away from home.” She thinks of her father and his dedication to human rights, and she’s reminded of the resilience of immigrants and refugees all over the world. To her, World Refugee Day is a reminder of the strength it takes to remove oneself from unfortunate circumstances and create opportunities for generations to come.
“To find hope where it seems like there isn’t any, to connect with the community and rely on fellow human beings to come together and make life better for one another . . . it goes beyond nationality,” Bustos said.
It’s also a reminder that there’s a commonality in every story. Finding the things that connect us, she notes, is how we move forward as a community, as a nation, and as members of an “international universe.”
In recent years it’s become easier to share across cultures. Now, we can easily access the music, traditions, food, and stories of people across the globe. The ever-expanding ability to connect with one another holds a world of potential.
“I find the world becoming smaller and smaller. Being able to share African music even through social media, connecting and traveling, it gives me hope,” she continued.
There’s much work to be done still. Each day brings more people, places, and government bodies focused on equity, accessibility, and acceptance. Illinois is prioritizing the importance of providing for those seeking basic human needs, Illinois is positioning itself as a leading welcoming State where all are not only welcome but received with open arms and open hearts.
Seeing this change firsthand and being part of it gives her faith in the future.
“I’m humbled and honored to serve. Each day is a new day, and a new opportunity to impact meaningful change in the world” Bustos concluded.
A refugee is someone who survived and who can create the future – Amela Koluder
Erica Parrigin manages communications at World Relief Quad Cities. She graduated from Western Illinois University with a BA in English in 2020. She believes that stories are powerful, and that learning to empathize with other perspectives is the key to making a difference.