The work of the St. Olaf students gives refugees a strong voice
St. Olaf College student Mary Maker ’23 knows how to use her voice to make a difference.
As Ambassador to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), she has shared her own story as a refugee through a TED talkInterviews with international news outlets and at conferences, also attended by leaders such as Michelle Obama and Meghan Markle.
She founded a non-profit organization called Elimisha Kakuma (“Educate Kakuma” in Swahili) to give refugee students the opportunity to study abroad. Over the summer, Maker, along with the other co-founders of Elimisha Kakuma, won the Social Advocacy Award at the annual We Rise Together celebration attended by university leaders, UNHCR humanitarian workers and international students from the United States.
She is the former co-chair of the POC Ole Theater ensemble, which performed her original play entitled “Under the Baobab Tree” about the LGBTQIA+ community in South Sudan last spring. This November she led the ensemble in a production entitled Patchworks. She is an avid poet and her work has been featured in UPRISING, KARIBU’s African and Caribbean Night and in the Black Ensemble Cabaret.
As a storyteller in everything she does, Maker wants to share her experiences and those of underrepresented people with the world. “I want to be in fashion, I want to be in acting, I want to be a writer, I just want to be able to tell the stories of the African continent,” she says. “I’m a storyteller. I was born to tell stories and if I can get this platform to find my way to Hollywood, find my way to Broadway and bring that extra flair to the stage…that’s it, where I see myself.”
Born in South Sudan, Maker grew up as a refugee in Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. Today, as a high profile supporter of UNHCR, she works to raise awareness of the refugee crisis worldwide, with a particular passion for refugee education. “I gave a TED talk on the importance of educating refugee girls because I personally struggled to get into school,” Maker says. “As a refugee woman from a patriarchal society, it was very important to me to tell my story so that people around the world can give refugees the opportunity to go to college.”
As a refugee woman coming from a patriarchal society, it was very important to me to tell my story so that people around the world can give refugees the opportunity to go to college.Maria Maker ’23
Maker’s work with UNHCR has given her a global reach. She has conducted interviews and fundraisers in Norway and the Netherlands which have helped raise millions of dollars to support the refugee crisis. She says: “I’ve been able to speak on platforms like The Stream on Al Jazeera and ABC News. I did a conversation with Girl Up with Kat Graham who is a famous dating actress That Vampire Diaries. We were able to speak to major leaders like Meghan Markle and Michelle Obama, as well as other celebrities like Chloe and Halle. Being able to go to these conferences and connect with these strong women has truly been a life blessing.”
In her first year at St. Olaf, Maker had the opportunity to speak at the L’Oreal Women of Worth Red Carpet Awards to raise awareness of the refugee crisis. She recently had the opportunity to do so Talk to Liza Koshy, a popular YouTuber, actress and television host. She says: “I’ve also been able to work with Liza Koshy and share refugee stories on a global platform, and also just let the world know that refugees … offer us more than just that identity. So my work is about highlighting refugee stories and telling refugee stories in the best possible way.”
While Maker has a global reach, she is incredibly committed to giving back to her local community, particularly by providing refugee education opportunities. To demonstrate this commitment, in 2021 she and four of her friends founded a non-profit organization called Elimisha Kakuma. The mission of this non-profit organization is to provide refugee students with the opportunity to study abroad. “It took me four years to get a scholarship to college because, as refugees, we don’t have collateral or can’t pay tuition — but that doesn’t mean we don’t have skills,” Maker says. Maker and the other founders of Elimisha Kakuma have partnered with Virginia Tech and have many student volunteers and interns helping students in refugee camps with college applications. Recently, Elimisha Kakuma was honored with the Social Advocacy Award at the annual We Rise Together celebration
Maker continued her effective work with UNHCR throughout the summer. On behalf of the UNHCR, she brokered a partnership with the Barça Foundation. she gave a speech in New York at the Futbol Club Barcelona Gala. In September she has moderated the United Nations General Assembly on transformational pedagogy. And she wrote that down 2022 UNHCR Education Report alongside renowned Formula 1 driver Lewis Hamilton.
From her work actively helping refugees to her work on stage, Maker’s influence on and off campus cannot be denied. A theater student with a passion for writing and storytelling, she says, “Theatre is a way of life. You can’t hide in the theater. People see you and you see other people, and that exchange of emotions makes you feel comfortable and safe.”
Theater is a way of life. You can’t hide in the theater. People see you and you see other people, and this exchange of emotions makes you feel comfortable and safe.Maria Maker ’23
Maker is particularly passionate about sharing BIPOC stories in the theater. “If you look at the theater around the world, there aren’t any voices or colored bodies, and when there is, it’s mostly in the realm of slavery or some point that wasn’t written by BIPOC people,” she says. “The reality is that alongside the struggles we go through as BIPOC bodies, there’s love, there’s joy, there’s so much about us that makes us who we are without disqualifying the painful parts .”
She actively shares the voices of BIPOC students on campus as a past co-chair of POC Ole Theatre, a student organization that aims to increase diversity in theater by giving BIPOC students the space to share their stories. your original game, Under the baobab tree, was performed by POC Ole Theater in April 2021. “The baobab tree is one of the strongest trees that have ever lived on the African continent,” says Maker. “Being able to write this piece about the LGBTQIA+ community was really an important piece for me because I come from a country that is not at all tolerant and it’s almost impossible to be a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, so I was able to write this fiction that knows the cultural history of South Sudan and brings this piece to life.”
However, her passion for writing doesn’t stop with the theatre. She also has a great love for poetry and has submitted quite a few her work on UPRISING, an annual student-led art exhibition at St. Olaf’s that showcases the artwork of Black students, faculty, staff and alumni. “I write a lot of poetry and it was interesting to address the issues of refugees through my poetry and to perform at various events,” says Maker. “I’ve tried to combine all of this with my actual work as a UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador.”
As Ole, Maker has had a chance to experiment and grow with her interests – while staying true to herself and bringing her own personal flair to everything she does. Maker says, “It was an amazing thing for me to do on the Hill — learning different styles of music and theater but still understanding who Mary is and bringing Mary into the mix.”