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Kemoh Mansaray has known he wanted to give back to his community since the day he arrived in Edmonton, in 2002, as a refugee from his native Sierra Leone. During that country’s vicious civil war, Kemoh was shot in the neck and left for dead — and may have wound up that way if not for the work of the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders. “They were picking dead bodies up and realized I was still breathing,” he says.

Once in Edmonton, Kemoh worked in a group home and later trained as a nurse. He never questioned why he made it out alive when so many others did not. “I believe I left for a reason,” he says. “I’ve always wanted to give back.”

That passion drove Kemoh to volunteer with groups like the Edmonton Multicultural Coalition, and to his current role as president of the Sierra Leone Association of Alberta. He wants to make sure that current refugees don’t face the same barriers he did when he first arrived. “The system here is built for mainstream Canadians, not immigrants,” Kemoh says. Everything from looking for a job to finding familiar food can be a major struggle for people fleeing war — often with little or no documentation. Kemoh was fortunate in that he already spoke English; many others aren’t so lucky.

Public engagement can only succeed, he says, if it gets communities like his more involved in the process. “I believe that cities don’t know how to exactly engage immigrant communities,” Kemoh says. He’s trying to help bridge that gap, because he knows the benefits are real. “We have an assumption that the City has already made up its mind. But when you engage, you see that it’s a process that we can actually contribute to.”

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