Refugee advocate Azaree Shakshak: ‘You have to put yourself in uncomfortable situations to be comfortable’

Published by Nicole Grundmeier on

Pictured above: Azaree Shakshak, center, assists Serenity Jackson and Michelle Gill at Oakridge Neighborhood’s Summer Blast Camp on Aug. 3 at Edmunds Elementary School in Des Moines. Photo by Duane Tinkey.

Editor’s note: With a new school year starting, Fearless decided to profile a college student who is already empowering other Iowa women and girls. Azaree Shakshak immigrated to the United States as a toddler and is now a sophomore at Iowa State University. She is the founder of the Sudanese Youth Committee and spent the summer interning at the Girl Scouts of Greater Iowa.

Azaree Shakshak learned early that making a difference requires taking risks.

When she was a teenager living in Des Moines’ Oakridge Neighborhood, she started the Sudanese Youth Committee.

“I never saw myself in a leadership role or position, especially at that age,” she said in an interview with Fearless. “But you have to put yourself in uncomfortable situations to be comfortable.”

Shakshak is now 21 and a sophomore at Iowa State University, and the Sudanese Youth Committee is an official nonprofit with about 100 members that provides a community for refugees and other immigrants from Sudan and South Sudan. “The goal of the group was to bring unity within our community,” she said.

Shakshak credits her childhood and programming at Oakridge for helping set her on a path to academic success and a record of seizing opportunities to help others.

Shakshak is Sudanese but was born in Cairo, Egypt. Her family lived in Iowa and then in Kansas before returning to Des Moines. Shakshak and her family have lived at Oakridge since 2016.

More than half of the residents at Oakridge, which provides affordable housing and human services on its campus just outside of downtown Des Moines, are immigrants.

“After I made this group, a lot of people from different countries have been reaching out to me,” she said. “‘How did you make this group? I want to make this for the Liberian community. I want to make this for the Congolese community.’”

Before Shakshak returned to Des Moines and started high school, she had been struggling with feeling isolated as the only Muslim girl in her social group in Kansas at a time when she wanted to start wearing a hijab.

At Roosevelt High School, she saw more people who looked like her. But bullying and other ignorance related to the head covering was still a reality sometimes.

“‘Why are these people judging me?’” Shakshak said she’d ask herself. As a result she would withdraw from engaging with peers. “But as I started to grow more, I started to accept myself more. My journey with myself does not include anyone around me. And I wish I’d had that mindset in high school, but I’m glad that I have it now.”

Shakshak participated in Oakridge Neighborhood’s Summer Youth Employment Program for several years, getting work experience as a camp counselor.

One of her first big projects at the camp was a presentation about hijabs.

“Kids can wear the hijab, learn about the religion of Islam, and just kind of have different aspects of different cultures and religions around them, separate from their own — more of like a learning experience for them. They really enjoyed it,” she said.

Shakshak has interned at Bankers Trust, the Iowa Statehouse with the Commission on the Status of African-Americans, Sammons Financial, and the Girl Scouts of Greater Iowa.

Some of that history has influenced possible career interests, she said, but “I don’t think there’s a specific dream job for me. It’s more of, ‘How can I contribute to my community with just my presence? What can I do to uplift the people around me, the kids around me, the youth around me?”

She is majoring in psychology at Iowa State.

“My initial goal was to become a counselor and contribute to kids, youth, in the metro area. But we’ll see where that takes me,” she said.

When she was growing up, Shakshak said, she would have appreciated club programming targeted toward people her age being more prominent. “I wish there was a way that they can go to every single student, regardless of if you’re a refugee, a citizen, if you’re from America or not, (and ask), ‘OK, we have these opportunities, we have these resources. Do they sound interesting to you?’”

Providing that sort of service is one of the things that motivates her, she said: “Having more of that now, I feel, will help kids get out of their shell, and help kids learn things” that would help them in the future.

Jordan Colbert, program manager, Oakridge Neighborhood youth education and engagement, said that all of Shakshak’s experiences have led her to the path she is on now. After being employed by Oakridge’s Summer Youth Employment Program for five or six years, Shakshak returned to Oakridge’s Summer Blast Camp this summer to host a global citizenship workshop for campers.

“I think it’s really an example of what our program is about — just bringing the full thing full circle, and coming back to the program and doing that workshop just really, really highlights all the hard work and all the opportunities that she’s taken advantage of in this process,” Colbert said.

Shakshak is a hard worker and is authentic to herself, Colbert said.

“She is deeply rooted in her culture and her community, which says so much about her vision and how she wants to connect with people. She has perseverance and tenacity. She’s definitely willing to go that extra mile and not give up, and like she says, being uncomfortable,” Colbert said.

Colbert recalled how nervous Shakshak was recently while the group was preparing to shoot a video about Oakridge’s Summer Youth Employment Program.

“She was the most nervous out of everybody that we interviewed. But she actually did the best out of everybody that we interviewed,” Colbert said. “She’s just very thorough and solid. And I love that about her. She’s a light. When I first met her, she had open arms toward me, like I knew her. I was like, ‘I don’t know you, but I love the love you’re giving me.’ And she’s always brought that energy in every room that she’s been in.”