Derreck Kayongo is head of the Atlanta-based National Center for Civil and Human Rights. With a longstanding career fighting for human rights, he was named a Top 10 CNN Hero of 2011 based on an initiative he founded, the Global Soap Project, which collects partially used hotel soap and reprocesses it for use in poor communities in 32 countries. Born in Uganda, Derreck fled to Kenya and was a refugee there until he received a scholarship to study in the U.S. The AHA Foundation interviewed Derreck for our Father’s Day newsletter.
Can you tell us about your experience in coming to the U.S.?
I received a scholarship to come to school in the U.S. What was a rare opportunity to get an education, gave me a way out of a continent that I loved, a bittersweet sentiment overcame me upon getting the scholarship. You see, I had been a refugee from Uganda living in Kenya fleeing the reprobate presidency of Idi Amin. I had witnessed a firing squad, hunger, disease and all the ignominy that comes with war, yet I never at one time thought that’s all my life would come to represent. I worked hard to befriend a missionary lady, Marge Campbell, who helped me get out of this miasma of terror. That fight to stay alive and to remain positive is what met me up with this grand opportunity to land the scholarship off to the U.S. The journey from Uganda to Kenya and then the U.S. was one fraught with moments of joy, which turned into sheer sadness and has come to conclude with an incredible success story in my new home America. This all transpired the way it has because I was given a chance to succeed as a former refugee.
Can immigrants and refugees find that balance between cultural and religious freedom while abandoning harmful traditional practices such as female genital mutilation?
Yes they can! Let’s all agree that as human beings we started off with the need to create cultures out of no written script on how to do it. We improvised and developed societal norms and traits to help us create functioning rules and guidelines to live by over time. Unfortunately many of those cultural and religious belief systems that were created in the nascent stages of our development, were rooted and based on inhumane falsehoods. What is inexcusable today is the continued belief and subscription in these dogmatic falsehoods after we have arrived at the truth. The extent that we are so determined to keep these falsehoods in place, symbolizes the most ignorant side of humans and it’s the direct antithesis of a progressive society. It’s important therefore for human cultures to be modified in order to adjust to the new discoveries both in science and sociological advancements. This brings about comity and accounts for a more humane and kind culture and religion.
What was your experience with FGM and early marriage in Africa? Do you see these practices happening in the U.S. among immigrant and refugee communities?
While I am not a direct witness of the horrid practice of FGM, I am Ugandan and my native country is unfortunately home to this practice. I had an honest conversation about FGM with a few friends and victims of it, and everyone agreed about its utter disregard for and lack of understanding of the female body. It’s brutal and speaks to all things evil in its practice. It’s one of the most notorious cultural practices that humans, especially men, created for selfish reasons. I link it to men because followed with that initiation is the equally insipid practice of early marriage. These two practices conspire to retard the development of women and eventually stifle economic and societal advancements. It simply needs to be stopped and seen for what it is: Stupid!
How can fathers play a role in promoting gender equitable rights?
As a father of a beautiful little girl, Lauren, I can’t overstress my love for her. And that love for Lauren gives me an entry point into understanding why girls are so important to society’s development. Because I protect Lauren and have her best interest at heart, she is growing into a lady of talents and wonderful promise. She is a classic pianist, on the dean’s honor roll and wants to be a dentist when she grows up! To that end, I have put focus in my work at the Center for Civil and Human Rights to fight against the criminal act of sex trafficking and the abuse of women and girls around the world. Through the work of the Anti-Sex Trafficking Institute I promote gender rights with a passion that is unrivaled. This I believe will give little girls like Lauren around the world the same opportunity that she has to succeed and be what they want to be when they grow up. I plead with each father to make this his charge in life. Then and only then, shall we create a life of fulfillment for our children around the world.
What advice would you give to any immigrant or refugee moving to the U.S.?
The U.S. presents the most incredible access to freedom that you will ever see anywhere in the world. Why? Because nowhere in the world do you have this assembly of all nations living together in relative peace. It’s alleged that New York City alone speaks close to 100 languages and they are all living in harmony without fear of the other. The U.S. is a country where you will find your voice. Use that voice then to expand diversity and inclusion in what is the most amazing social human experiment ever created. The U.S. will afford you all kinds of opportunities, but never forget from whence you’ve come. Your people back at home look upon you as a gift to the world, hence remember to support them and advocate for their welfare until your dying day. And lastly, bring the very best of your culture and religion to add value to this great nation. Leave your compunctions behind and start afresh in love of our new home, America!