Faces of Walden

Building Inclusive Communities

By Eileen Daily

Dr. Mona Alnaeemi is empowering refugees to believe in themselves and advocate for the lives they deserve.

Few people can imagine the difficult journey of refugees, who are often forced to leave their homes, family members, and even memories behind as they flee danger and seek a safe place to rebuild their lives.

Dr. Mona Alnaeemi doesn’t need to imagine that journey. Thirty years ago, she fled northern Iraq during the Gulf War and sought refuge in the United States.

Alnaeemi, who prefers to be called Dr. Mona, is a 2021 Walden Outstanding Alumni Award nominee and refugee advocate. Her story is one of inspiration and the transformational power of believing in oneself and in others. “It was very difficult for me and my family,” she recalls of their experiences as refugees.

“There were so many challenges—from learning the language to navigating the system to knowing that sometimes you cannot find a person to believe in you.”

But she never stopped believing in herself and in her dreams. Over the last three decades, Dr. Mona has built a beautiful life for herself and her family and is empowering other immigrant women to do the same.

From Refugee to Refugee Advocate

“There were very few social services back then and almost nothing specifically for Muslim refugee women,” she says about her arrival in the United States in the early 1990s.

That dearth of resources sparked a passion that would become Dr. Mona’s life’s work: using her experiences as a Muslim refugee to mentor and help women on similar paths. She became a caseworker for Mosaic Family Services in Dallas, Texas, where she helped empower immigrant women with the tools and resources to move from economic dependency to self-sufficiency. After 13 years with Mosaic, as well as ongoing volunteering with churches and nonprofits, Dr. Mona co-founded the Dallas Institute for Immigrant Women, a nonprofit human and social services organization focused on improving the quality of life of immigrant women.

“Social change is about learning from yesterday to build a better future.” —Dr. Mona Alnaeemi

A Holistic and Empathetic Approach

“Two things I focus on are obviously language and employment,” Dr. Mona says. “These are the fundamental building blocks of independence.”

However, she believes that holistic care is essential to success. When aiding an immigrant woman, she says, “I look at everything in her life: Does she need mental health services for depression or anxiety? Does she need medical care? Is she a victim of human trafficking? Is she under threat of domestic violence?”

A commonly overlooked aspect of helping Muslim refugee women thrive in the United States is providing access to culturally competent service providers. For example, Dr. Mona says Muslim women should be interviewed only by women counselors, or they may not feel comfortable sharing. “They also should not receive counseling while a father, brother, or male spouse is in the room, or she will not speak up,” she says.

Although Dr. Mona has a 20-year legacy of volunteering for nonprofit organizations and local churches, she remains fiercely dedicated to doing more. “I breathe volunteering,” she says.

Recently, her dissertation, Experiences of Kurdish/Middle Eastern Refugee Women Seeking Employment, was selected for submission to the U.S. Library of Congress. Her research on equal employment opportunity for immigrant women will live on and be a guide in shaping societal change: “Congress will use my dissertation as one of its references when making decisions about programs for immigrant women,” Dr. Mona says.

Despite her success, Dr. Mona remains grounded in doing the hard, everyday work of advocating for refugees. “My true reward is seeing a client empowered; she’s learning how to find and leverage resources and become a good and active member in society.”

“Asking to become a refugee is a human right. But it’s our responsibility [as refugees] to improve, to become a fantastic future citizen that our community is proud of.” —Dr. Mona Alnaeemi