Odyssey Project provides hope for immigrants and refugees

thee people with their arms around each other

“If I had not been in the Odyssey Project I would not be where I am today,” says Josephine Lorya-Ozulamoi, a refugee from Sudan. “I would have been in a dark place. But instead the Odyssey Project shed a light into my life, and I am on the road to success.”

Grisel Tapia Claudio
Grisel Tapia Claudio: ‘The Odyssey Project will help me grow professionally and as a person.’ Above: Claudio (right) with Joy Bally and Ahmad Alabboud Alkheder. (Photo by Colleen Johnson)

The University of Wisconsin-Madison Odyssey Project is a free college humanities class for adults near the poverty level, helping them achieve their dreams of higher education. Over its 14-year history, Odyssey has attracted many immigrants and refugees from all parts of the world. These students enrich the class with their varied perspectives, just as multicultural newcomers have always enriched the United States.

“Immigrants broaden the definition of America,” says Odyssey Project director Emily Auerbach. “They make us look at our own history and values through fresh eyes. When we find common ground in class, such as writing about dreams for our families, it breaks down all kinds of walls.”

Ahmad Alabboud Alkheder
Ahmad Alabboud Alkheder: ‘Odyssey will keep me going forward to pursue my education.’

The 2016-17 Odyssey class provides a melting-pot vision worthy of Emma Lazarus, whose poem “The New Colossus” graces the Statue of Liberty with its image of “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Indeed, “The New Colossus” is a key part of the Odyssey reading list. The poet’s words have special meaning for Odyssey students who’ve journeyed to America for the promise of liberty and justice for all.

Free at last

Joy left Trinidad and Tobago in search of tolerance for homosexuality. She arrived in New York City with $100 in her pocket and Martin Luther King’s words ringing in her ears: “Free at last, free at last!”

“It was a dream come true, and I felt like I belonged,” she says.

After working for many years as a custodian in Madison, Joy hopes to continue her education and find more fulfilling work. She sees Odyssey as a step in the right direction.

Bally Joy
Joy: ‘This is a journey that will open up new opportunities for me.’

“I will expand my mind and expose myself to many different perspectives on life,” she says. “This is a journey that will open up new opportunities for me.”

Ahmad planned to study dentistry in his native Syria. But war intervened, and Ahmad received a visa to pursue his education in the United States. After several semesters at Madison College, he applied to the Odyssey Project to improve his writing and find a community.

“Since I am alone in America without my family, I wanted to be around people,” says Ahmad, who was recently granted political asylum by the Department of Homeland Security. “Odyssey will keep me going forward to pursue my education.”

Grisel emigrated from Mexico at age 15, entering Madison’s East High School with no English skills. Since then she has dedicated herself to serving the community and is currently board president of Nuestro Mundo Inc., which promotes cross-cultural education. She was chosen as one of Brava Magazine’s “Women to Watch” and received the Centro Hispano Ilda Conteris Thomas leadership award.

Grisel entered the Odyssey Project to improve her reading and writing skills and to find motivation for earning a college degree.

“I know I can do a lot more to serve our community by preparing myself educationally,” she says. “The Odyssey Project will help me grow professionally and as a person.”

Josephine Lorya-Ozulamoi
Josephine Lorya-Ozulamoi is a Sudanese refugee who will earn her master’s degree with help from the Odyssey Project.

For inspiration, these current Odyssey students can look to Lorya-Ozulamoi, who emigrated to the United States after escaping the war in South Sudan. Lorya-Ozulamoi’s experience in the 2008 Odyssey class provided the springboard for an undergraduate degree, and now a graduate degree; in May she will earn her master’s in social work from UW-Madison. She plans to embark on a career of helping refugees.

Lorya-Ozulamoi had a rocky road to completing her degrees, marked by financial hardship and bureaucratic obstacles. But she persevered with assistance from the Odyssey Project.

A sense of empowerment

Each year, the Odyssey Project offers its two-semester humanities class for 30 adults, providing textbooks, childcare, and a weekly dinner. They earn six credits in English from UW-Madison, as well as gain critical thinking skills and a sense of empowerment. To make a donation to the program, see here.

Odyssey Junior is a related program for the children and grandchildren of Odyssey students. To donate to Odyssey Junior and have your gift matched dollar-for-dollar by the National Endowment for the Humanities, see here; or mail a check to Friends of the Odyssey Project, Attn: Odyssey Junior Match, 21 N. Park St., Room 7468, Madison, WI 53715.

The graduation ceremony for the 2016-17 Odyssey Project class is Wednesday, May 3, 6:30-8 p.m., at Varsity Hall in UW-Madison’s Union South. UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank will congratulate the students,  and each of them will share a brief reading. The event is open to the public.

For more information about the Odyssey Project or Odyssey Junior, contact Emily Auerbach, 608-262-3733, emily.auerbach@wisc.edu.