Stephen’s Story

Ugandan Refugee Stephen Ssemaala Builds New Life in Thurston County

By Isabelle Morrison, Timberline High School Intern to ThurstonTalk

Professor Stephen Ssemaala's life took him from political unrest in Uganda to his American Government classroom at SPSCC.
Professor Stephen Ssemaala’s life took him from political unrest in Uganda to his American Government classroom at SPSCC.

Millions of people immigrate to United States every year in hopes of escaping the circumstances they were born into and pursuing the dream of beginning a life their homeland couldn’t provide. When I hear stories like Stephen Ssemaala’s, I am reminded of how great our country is. After all, what other nation could you come to with nothing but the clothes on your back, and still be given the opportunity to obtain citizenship, acceptance, and another chance?

Ssemaala is an example of the many opportunities that this country holds – if you’re willing to put in some hard work, of course. Ssemaala is a contract counselor at the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services and part-time American Government professor at South Puget Sound Community College.

He is the father of four children, all of whom have received a college diploma.  His oldest son has served in the U.S. Army for thirteen years and is stationed in North Carolina, and one of his daughters has her master’s in business and currently resides in Virginia.

With all of the success that Ssemaala and his family have attained in their lives, it is hard to fathom the many obstacles they have overcome.

Ssemaala was born and raised in the East African country of Uganda, on an island in Lake Victoria. “I grew up on Bufunira Island in Lake Victoria, in a small village of about 200 people and I knew them all by name,” Ssemaala recalls. He was raised by his grandmother until the fifth grade, when he moved back to the mainland to continue school and live with his single mother and eight siblings.

Ssemaala describes his childhood on the island as fun and simple. “Life on the island was fun. We didn’t have much, but I didn’t notice – we had a lot of love.” He remembers doing chores for his grandmother such as washing clothes, fetching firewood and hauling water, as the village had no running water.

When asked what school was like on the island, Ssemaala couldn’t help but laugh. “There were only about 60 students on the entire island, and none of the teachers were qualified. High school drop-outs or anyone who had the time to spare would come and teach,” he explains. They had no books and no proper classroom. Ssemaala recalls his tiny class sitting in assigned spots under a mango tree, writing their alphabet with sticks in the dirt.

At this point, you’re probably wondering how this carefree little boy from Uganda ended up in Olympia – fast forward several years.

In 1992, the Ugandan government began rewriting their constitution. “The people of each political district were to elect their political representatives to represent them at a constituent assembly and assist in rewriting the constitution,” explains Ssemaala. His brother ran to become a delegate in their district and was elected. Three months after his election, he died in a boating accident.

After the passing of his brother, the district suggested that Ssemaala take his place.  “After I was elected, I became very involved in politics and very vocal about the injustices that the government was doing,” says Ssemaala.

When the constitution was rewritten, a presidential election took place and a friend of Ssemaala’s ran for office with Ssemaala on the campaign team. They lost and the people of Uganda were very unhappy with these results.

Due to the backlash that the new president was receiving, the government began to harass anyone who did not support their policies, including Ssemaala and his friends. With the daily fear of ending up in jail or worse, Ssemaala thought it would be best to leave the country.

In 1996 Ssemaala fled Uganda and immigrated to the United States, leaving his wife and four kids behind.

“I came here with two pairs of pants, two shirts, and $80,” he recalls. Like most new immigrants, he experienced the difficulty of getting through the immigration office and was held in a detention center for three weeks before being granted political asylum. After being released, his first priority was to get a job, earn money and bring his family overseas. “My first job was at a Jack in the Box in Everett. It’s still there, I always drive past it,” laughs Ssemaala.

Ssemaala was reunited with his family in 2002.

During the time Ssemaala spent alone in America, he faced the many challenges that come with adjusting to a new culture. “I had a very strong accent when I first came here. I struggled with having to repeat myself,” he confesses. Ssemaala also admits that adjusting to new cultural customs and learning a new language can be very isolating. “It limits your ability to get jobs, make friends, and communicate. It can lower your self-esteem and make you shy,” he explains.

Despite the hardships, Ssemaala truly appreciates this country. “I love this country because you can set goals and achieve them. Times were bad when I lived in Uganda – people were being killed and living in fear. You didn’t know if you were going to make it to the end of the day, let alone three months later,” says Ssemaala. “You don’t have to be worried in this country because of the peace – it allows you to plan ahead.”

Ssemaala’s experience here has led him to believe that the two keys to success in America are an education and good credit. “If you have these two things, it doesn’t matter what color you are or where you are from. If you have the skills, nobody can deny you the opportunity to be who you want to be.”

Looking back, Ssemaala would never have pictured himself where he is now. “I wanted to teach because I love politics and I’m very interested in the American government,” he shares. Ssemaala also strives to be a role model for immigrant and minority students who are struggling.

His advice for these students, and anyone struggling, is to cultivate relationships with the right people and to never be afraid of asking for help. “There is a lot of pride, especially in American culture – people don’t like to ask for help. You shouldn’t see it as a handout, getting help and advice comes in so many different ways.”