A Guide for the Journey

Emma Yaaka is a Ugandan refugee who calls Chicago home. After navigating a long and arduous resettlement process, he advocates for others as a medical case manager at the Heartland Alliance.

by Zach Baliva

Emma Yaaka Heartland Alliance

Emma Yaaka, Medical Case Manager, Heartland Alliance

The first installment of Guerrero’s Immigrant Narratives series is in partnership with Heartland Alliance, a nonprofit and nonpartisan organization focused on advancing human rights. The executives whose stories we tell across Guerrero’s brands and networks often stand on the shoulders of those who supported the dreams of their children and grandchildren. Through the Immigrant Narratives series, we plan to share the extraordinary stories of underrepresented immigrants living in America.

As Told to Zach Baliva; Photos by Sheila B. Sarmiento

Many refugee stories start with tragedy, and mine is no different.

The two people who were supposed to help and protect and provide for me were taken away from me when I was young. My father was poisoned by my stepsiblings, who wanted to take the land and power that my family had, and my other father was shot by the police. These things sound strange to most Americans I meet, but there are parts of the world where this is common.

I thought my childhood in Uganda was pretty normal before all this happened. I didn’t even know we were poor. It’s hard to appreciate what your parents are going through to give you everything you have, and I didn’t realize that what we had was not much. At the age of eleven, I started realizing that my mom was going through a hard time to give us food, shelter, and education.

Emma Yaaka Heartland Alliance

I remember one time I went to the streets and danced for money. I was so excited, but my sister pulled me aside and explained that our mom struggled to buy us food. She told me we probably didn’t have food for dinner and that I should use my money to help the family. That’s when I knew we were poor.

A few years later, I asked my mom how I could make a small amount of money to start a business and help the family. I had to carry twenty liters of water for four kilometers, ten to fifteen times a day, to get the water she used to prepare the alcohol she sold. She gave me some money, and I started selling different things. I was so proud when I had enough money to buy some chickens, but before long, thieves came and stole everything I had worked so hard for.

This is how it went; it was a cycle. I learned that your resources will ultimately be taken by oppressors. I tried very hard to help my family survive, but I couldn’t do it.

Poisoning others is common in Uganda. We didn’t have money, but we had land, so my dad was a target as the eldest male. When he died, I became the target, so I left. I had no choice.

Leaving was hard, and there were other factors that I still can’t talk about, but I simply had to go. People took advantage of me in unspeakable ways. I had to hide for more than six months before I could go, and I had no relatives or friends to help me.

Because of the way things were, I knew I had to get to Kenya. That was my goal, but I had no transportation or access. I just had to find a way to cross the border. I went to the border and examined it for a week. “If I cross this line, where am I going?” I would ask myself.

“I like to say that I’m maybe 85 or 90 percent whole. But that’s more than most of these people, and so it is my duty and honor to help them.”

I finally got up the courage to ask a driver to hide me in his truck and take me in, so he took me to Nairobi. He dropped me off and drove away. I was all alone again, with no idea what to do. I had no shoes, no food, and no ID. And I knew they would kick me out if they found me.

Before too long, I found a group of refugees sleeping outside, but I didn’t speak their language. It was a settlement, and there were human rights workers there. They offered to take me in and told me there might even be a job coming open.

It sounds good, but it wasn’t easy. Whenever the door to the building opened, everyone would push and fight to get access to a worker. We had to run all over the place to try to get registered, and we never seemed to have the right information.

After two weeks, I finally got registered. When that happens, they want you to leave, but you have nowhere to go. They put me with some other Ugandans and put us in a hotel for one night, promising to return, but they never did. We had to walk ten miles back to the office. I got labeled as an asylum seeker. They gave me the equivalent of $100 and sent me away. I thought I was rich until I realized that was all I had for housing, food, and necessities.

I finally found a group of guys to live with. We had to pool our money. I remember we bought three two-inch mattresses, and that’s all that fit in the one-room apartment we found. Seven of us slept like that as we waited six months for our assessment interviews. People may think the process is easy to exploit, but they want to know your story and contact where you came from to see if you are telling the truth. You get in big trouble if your story isn’t verified. Some of my interviews lasted for five hours. You’re always giving your story and answering hundreds of questions in small details. It is very traumatic.

“There needs to be change, but change will only come when we give a voice back to refugees and service providers.”

As I saw how hard it was, I also met organizations looking to do better. I found a place looking for a Ugandan to help translate and do other advocacy. I applied and got the job. They trained me as an interpreter, I did first aid and settlement interviews, and they paid me. I started working as a community health worker and interpreter, and I was placed at a government hospital. I had a shift and a job to help refugees access our services. It felt wonderful to stand up for the community and help people like me access services.

Although I was working, I was still a refugee. I had to attend my appointments and interviews. I was finally tagged for resettlement, which means I made it . . . but my new home was not my choice. People go to Canada, Sweden, the United States, and elsewhere. I got sent to Chicago with the Heartland Alliance. Heartland is my home, my father, my mother, and my friend that I can run to. I am required to stay at least five years without returning to my home country. I had never heard of Chicago. I knew nothing about Chicago. But now, Chicago is my home.

Heartland received me from day one, brought me to my apartment, and got me a job cleaning in a hospital. After many months, Heartland was looking for someone to help with medical case management. I wanted the job, but I had to apply like anyone else. I went through the interview process and got the position, so now I help new refugees get settled and receive services.

  • Emma Yaaka Heartland Alliance
    Outside of Chicago’s Heartland Alliance, Emma Yaaka hauls blankets, shampoo, and masks to his van for delivery to families from the Congo, Syria, and Afghanistan.


I take my job seriously because I know how traumatic the process is for others. I’ve been through it myself. I drive all over the city to reach out to new refugee communities. I connect people to insurance and teach them how to work through different systems they’ve never had to navigate before. I do home visits, take people to medical appointments, and talk about what the doctor says to make sure they understand. These things are stressful in a foreign language even in normal times—it’s much harder when you have been through trauma. We become friends. We connect. We laugh and share life together.

But I have bigger ambitions. I want to do more. I’m advocating for better and equal services. I’m always on the side of the people I serve because I’ve had similar experiences in my life. I have to admit that I still struggle too. I like to say that I’m maybe 85 or 90 percent whole. But that’s more than most of these people, and so it is my duty and honor to help them.

It’s actually a problem because some people tell me I do too much. I get in trouble or misunderstood by my roommates sometimes. My roommates have kicked me out of our house in Kenya because there are always too many people turning up at random hours to ask me for help. This also puts my work on risk due to boundaries that are put in place.

As I was doing this work, I noticed that refugees lack information, voice, and a platform. Nobody is listening to us because the common narrative is that refugees are always talking or complaining a lot. I created the Wordout YouTube channel for this reason. I’m having doctors and healthcare providers come on to dispel COVID-19 myths, and we interview lawyers and nutritionists. We give refugees a chance to tell their stories. I don’t have cameras, and I can’t afford to pay someone to edit for me. I drive an Uber on weekend nights only to make extra money and use my phone to create all the content.

Emma Yaaka Heartland Alliance

Emma Yaaka meets with the father of his last family of the day.

I’m doing this because refugees need to be heard. There needs to be change, but change will only come when we give a voice back to refugees and service providers. The resources are there, but they are too hard to get, and nobody listens when we tell them how to fix the system.

If America and the world doesn’t fix this, society loses out because there are amazing people in the refugee community. There are doctors, lawyers, teachers, husbands, leaders, and blue-collar workers who could support this country. Instead, we are working in the hospitality industry for minimum wage, where we are constantly underestimated, exploited, disrespected, and misunderstood. This generation could change the country, but I’m afraid we’ll never be taken seriously enough to be given that chance. We might just remain in housekeeping forever.

What I want Americans to know is this: refugees are important to this country. We are here to help, and we are part of the community. This is my home. But I need you to give me the opportunity to contribute. I will always try. I will always pray things will work out. I will always have hope. But only if we are given an opportunity.

“This is my home. But I need you to give me the opportunity to contribute. I will always try. I will always pray things will work out. I will always have hope. But only you can give me an opportunity.”

In general, working with Heartland Alliance feels so comfortable to me because they agreed to give me the opportunity work with them. I know they care, value, respect, and understand refugees and immigrants—regardless of our education level, language, race, color, status, and gender. They are working with us from day one, and they are capable of identifying our abilities.

Agencies like Heartland Alliance and other human care services represent us. They need to be listened to and supported.