In 1993, when Biar Kon was just 3 months old, his family fled their home in civil war-torn Sudan for Kenya. Kon spent the first two decades of his life in the Kakuma and Dadaab refugee camps with his mother and four siblings.
“I truly didn’t understand the term ‘refugee’ until I was around the age of 10, because I never knew there could be a different life,” says Kon, who grew up surrounded by the camps’ harsh realities. “I witnessed violence, hunger and people without access to adequate health care.”
Everything changed for the Kon family in 2015, when they were granted refugee resettlement to the United States. With help from the International Institute of New England (IINE), the family settled in Lowell, where Kon earned an associate degree from Middlesex Community College.
He is now completing a bachelor’s degree in business administration at UMass Lowell, with concentrations in international business and marketing.
“I discovered a really good support system at UMass Lowell,” says Kon, who found friends and resources through the Office of Multicultural Affairs. He also found a “great community,” he says, in the Manning School of Business, where he helped launch the International Business Society student organization.
“I want to own my own business someday,” Kon says. “As a business person, you get to interact with people and identify needs in the community — and then fulfill those needs.”
Since coming to Lowell, Kon has given back to the refugee community by working as an interpreter, intern and ambassador for the IINE.
“I came as a refugee, so I know the challenges they face, especially if they don’t speak the language,” he says. “I want to be that person that I didn’t have when I first came here.”
Kon is also a leading voice in the IINE’s Suitcase Stories, a spoken-word program that gives immigrants the opportunity to take the stage and share their experiences with live audiences.
“When I first came to the U.S., it was difficult to stand in front of 10 people. I started gaining momentum and confidence with Suitcase Stories. Now I can stand up and speak to any group of people without any fear,” says Kon, who delivered the commencement address when he graduated from Middlesex in May 2019.
Earlier that month, at the IINE’s centennial celebration, Kon was named one of the “Lowell 100,” which honored “the most influential advocates, trailblazers and leaders” from the city’s immigrant community.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, his Suitcase Stories — and coursework — have been mostly virtual over the past year. He says the adjustment has been difficult at times, but he remains optimistic.
“Growing up in a refugee camp in Africa teaches you resiliency,” he says. “When the pandemic hit, health-wise it wasn’t good. But what are the positive outcomes? You get time to spend with your family at home. You get time to reflect. So you always try to think about the positives.”