Leonard Bagalwa is the executive director of Utah Valley Refugees which he founded in 2016 when his journey as a refugee himself led him to start the organization.
“I left Congo in 1977 when I was 17, when I was kidnapped and used as a child soldier,” he said.
Bagalwa was able to escape, but after walking four days to arrive back at his home, his mother would not accept him back in her home because his two brothers were killed when the rebels came looking for him.
Yet, his mother still helped him get aid at the nearby Catholic church. “It wasn’t an easy journey,” Bagalwa said.
After countless trials, including being beaten almost to death, Bagalwa miraculously made it to the refugee camp in Malawi.
Less than 1% of the world’s refugees are considered for resettlement and after three years of waiting, Bagalwa was able to be a part of that 1%.
But the adjustment to life in America was anything but easy.
“So everything was different for me like cooking, switching off the stove,” he said. The barriers didn’t stop there.
After months of working a nighttime graveyard job, Bagalwa ended up homeless. But the kindness of a couple who got to know him really changed things for him. The couple’s generosity didn’t end there, they helped him get his new life started by paying for his education and giving him a car.
“They did not require anything of me, they just only wanted me to carry on and help other people. When I decided to open up Utah Valley Refugees, it was to just carry on their legacy,” he said.
Since the organization began five years ago, they have been able to help 180 families. Utah Valley Refugees focuses on helping refugees after resettlement agencies have laid the foundation; they help with housing, employment, education and health care.
Bagalwa said he believes education is key to successful integration of refugees into our community “because we learn from each other.”
In addition to monetary and hygiene donations, Bagalwa also asks for your skills. “We believe that people in the community’s ideas can help us grow,” he said.