2010 Nancy Susan Reynolds Award Winners Omer Omer, Sister Attracta Kelly, Christopher Flynt

Nancy Susan Reynolds Awards

Omer Omer (Greensboro)

More than 9,000 refugees from Africa live in the Greensboro area, and the number in recent years has been as high as 12,000 to 14,000. Perhaps the most well-known is Omer Omer, a former journalist in Sudan whose reporting put his life in danger and forced him to flee his native country, first to England and then to the United States.

Omer is the force behind a crucial resettlement agency known as African Services Coalition (ASC), a community-based organization committed to serving these newcomers to North Carolina and helping them integrate into society here.

Like Omer, most of the refugees from Africa came to Greensboro to escape their native war-torn countries. And therein lies a monumental challenge that Omer has proved astute in handling. The diversity among the African immigrants includes ethnic, religious and political differences that in their home countries were the catalyst for conflict, strife and war. As Executive Director of ASC, Omer has worked to bring the groups of Africans together and help them begin to understand one another, help them heal some of these wounds, and help them to see commonalities rather than differences.

One extraordinary accomplishment of Omer's impact on the resettlement community is that the ASC board is composed of representatives from various African communities that have resettled in the state. Persons whose native countries, tribes and religions were at war with each other in Africa are now working side by side to assist new refugees and immigrants. His vision and negotiating skills enable these diverse newcomers to work together.

A notable example of Omer's skills is in his work with the Sudanese community. Greensboro has a large Sudanese immigrant community from Northern Sudan, mostly Muslim, as is Omer. In the late 1990s, refugees from Southern Sudan began to be resettled in the Triad. Many of them were known as the "Lost Boys," a group of Southern Christians who experienced extraordinary persecution from the Sudanese government in the north. They believed that the Northern Muslims were the cause of their persecution, rather than the specific corrupt regime that is in power in Sudan. Omer told them that although he was a victim of a government just like the people of Southern Sudan, that he has no ill feelings. He told them he was simply here to listen and to help. While his words my have fallen on suspicious ears, his actions, compassion, openness and his fair treatment of everyone demonstrated that he meant what he said. In fact, Omer mobilized the Northern Sudanese immigrant community to serve as sponsors of the "Lost Boys" here in North Carolina.

Omer uses that same approach in dealing with Rwandans, Hutus and Tutsis, to negotiate an air of togetherness and to help them realize they have much more in common than they realize.

Another bridge-building strategy that Omer has used is to build coalitions and working agreements with existing African-American communities. In doing so, he has overcome a perception that the African-American and African communities have little in common. ASC works closely with African-American low-income neighborhoods where many newcomers are resettled to build support systems and awareness within those neighborhoods.

His efforts to promote understanding and peace are not without some difficulty. Aside from the inherent challenges of bringing diverse, formerly hostile groups together, Omer, now a United States citizen, has faced personal persecution because he is a Muslim. Some people within his own religion have criticized him because of his willingness to work with so many diverse groups.

Undaunted, Omer maintains his smile and gentle spirit. One colleague said, "Our clients come from all over the world, and he is equally welcoming and caring to all of them."

Sister Attracta Kelly (Raleigh)

Sister Attracta Kelly, who as a nun from Ireland has spent her adult life in service to others by advocating for those less fortunate, came to North Carolina in 1999 to head the Immigrants Legal Assistance Project (ILAP) of the North Carolina Justice Center. By the time she left this summer, she had helped thousands of immigrants who were in desperate straits.

It did not take her long to establish ILAP as the place in North Carolina where low-income immigrants could find meaningful help with immigration law matters. For ten and a half years, Attracta provided high quality, passionate and remarkably effective representation to a wide variety of immigrants - including people who fled their countries due to persecution because of their political views, race, religion, gender, nationality and many other grounds. She also provided legal assistance to victims of domestic violence, familiies seeking to remain together who would face extreme hardship if they were separated; and victims of violent crimes, natural disasters, and human trafficking.

Immigration law is a controversial and challenging field, but strong-willed Attracta Kelly believed passionately in what she was doing, and she did it well.  She developed a system of case prioritization under which ILAP's scarce resources were reserved for the most complex cases and those in which clients' and their families' lives were at risk.

Originally, Attracta came to the United States from Ireland to teach, which she did in a number of southern states. In 1986, however, she was called by her fellow sisters to serve a term as part of the Adrian Dominican Order's governing team in Michigan. It was during this period that Attracta's interest in and passion for immigrants' rights began to take hold, in part by helping Guatemalans and Salvadorans fleeing violence and oppression in their home countries find safe passage to Canada. She soon decied that a law degree would enable her to be more effective, so she attended and graduated from Catholic University of America's law school in 1996.

During her more than 10 years at the Justice Center in Raleigh, she represented thousands of immigrants and carried or maintained a caseload that held steady at approximately 500 clients. Her legal work often took her to the Asylum Office of Citizenship and Immigration Services in Arlington, VA, immigration services offices in Charlotte and Durham, and Immigration Court in Charlotte and Atlanta.

The Atlanta court has a reputation as one of the toughest, most hostile venues in the country for immigrants. Even so, Attracta achieved a success rate for her clients of more than 50 percent. Through painstaking and tireless research, preparation and attention to detail, she found success where few others even tried. Her determined, selfless efforts quite literally saved the lives of hundreds of human beings.

Attracta Kelly also has mentored and provided support and training to hundreds of lawyers, lay advocates, students and service providers who work with immigrants and their families throughout North Carolina. Recognizing that the needs of low-income immigrants could not be met by one agency acting alone, she helped found and support a network of immigrant advocates, grassroots groups and faith organizations to meet the overwhelming demand. Her work in this area has been called "indispensible."

Earlier this year, Sister Attracta Kelly was elected by her fellow sisters to a six-year term as Prioress of the Adrian Dominican Order, the highest post in the international congregation of nuns, and this summer she moved to Adrian, MI. But by taking the time to help a new generation learn what it means to be forceful and dignified advocates on behalf of those who so many are willing to turn their backs on, Attracta has developed the next generation of attorneys and advocates to carry on her work in North Carolina and beyond.

Christopher Flynt (Winston-Salem)

As a child, Chris Flynt lived in a world of sight. He also lived those early years knowing that one day he would lose his sight and his world would change. Born with the degenerative eye disease Retinitis Pigmentosa, Chris become moderately impaired as a teenager and legally blind in his 20s. He can distinguish light and darkness and see large shapes.

His college degree in computer sciences prepared him to compete in the white-collar job market, but as his vision deteriorated, he was unable to find work. Somewhat reluctantly, he went to work in 2001 at Winston-Salem Industries for the Blind where his job was putting labels on poly bags. He sought out other opportunities at work and soon moved from the manufacturing floor to manage a new computer lab and library for the blind.

That move changed his life and the lives of countless others. Now he had a mission. Recognizing the huge diminishment in quality of life that comes from losing one's sight, Chris became determined to change things. "The world is run by the sighted community for the sighted community," he said. "I am fortunate to be part of a 'new foundation' that will better integrate the visually impaired with the sighted."

Chris spends his days and often his nights and weekends improving the lives of other blind and visually impaired persons. He teaches them about using public transportation, going to a shopping mall, living independently in an apartment setting, self defense, financial management and other skills that improve their quality of life. He has developed support groups for those dealing with many of the causes of blindness and low vision.

Many of the recreational programs he has established would surprise sighted persons: among them a darts club, a choir that produced a holiday CD, a bowling team, pottery and kudzu basket making classes, photography classes, a hiking and running club and a book club.

At Industries for the Blind, he developed and now directs a multi-faceted program called A Brighter Path to provide training, education and social interaction for the blind and visually impaired at work and in the community. Free computer classes taught by blind employees use the most advanced technology available. A lending library he established features books in Braille, large print and various audio formats. TAD's Room (training and development) provides space for support groups and educational programming. The Toastmasters Club he created is helpful in bulding self-respect and self-sufficiency. Said one participant, "When you are blind you tend to shy away, but Toastmasters gives you the big voice and confidence."

Chris' efforts have led to a fundamental shift in the organizational culture at Industries for the Blind. Blind and visually impaired employees hold more leadership positions, and policies and procedures now take into account that most of the people who work there are blind. He developed and personally conducts sensitivity to blindness training for all new employees who are sighted, a program that also is offered free to others in the community.

Those changes are important in the work experience of hundreds of people, but Chris Flynt's most important work may be measured in the changes he inspires in individual lives. He brings people out of their physical and emotional isolation by giving them confidence to lead fuller lives than they or their families ever thought possible. As one blind co-worker said, "Chris is the powerful motivator in my life. He has taught me that because I can't see doesn't mean that I can't do. He has broken that wall and put a determination in me that I can find my way in the world of the sighted."