Each year since 1972, Soroptimist has provided financial support to women striving to achieve their dreams despite having faced tremendous obstacles. Through the Women’s Opportunity Awards, Soroptimist has made it possible for these women to fulfill their potential despite domestic violence, sexual abuse, poverty, and other hardships. They, in turn, have improved the lives of their families and communities.
This year, Soroptimist is honored to award $10,000 to three passionate, hard-working, strong women: Aziza Kabibi McGill; Hope Kagoyrie; and Hamako Yamada.
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Aziza's story is one of horrific abuse and sexual slavery—and also one of triumph. She was home-schooled as a child and hidden from the outside world. At age 8, her home-schooling turned to sexual education at the hands of her father, who was—to the public—a renowned director and MTV award-winner who worked with The Fugees on the “Killing Me Softly” video in the 1990s. His public persona and fame hid his dark secret of abuse.
"When I was a preteen, one of the ways I escaped the stress and confusion that resulted from the abuse my father inflicted on me was to sleep; and dream. I'd use the spare time I had during the day between chores, homework and caring for my siblings, to close my eyes and descend (or ascend) to a place that I felt I had control over what went on in my life," Aziza said.
In an attempt to create a "pure" race, Aziza's father impregnated her five times. Four of Kibibi's pregnancies came to term, two of her children born with a genetic disorder caused by inbreeding.
When Aziza was 23, one child was hospitalized with complications from inbreeding. A social worker intervened, and for a time, removed Aziza's children from the home for safety reasons. But through dedication and motherly love, Aziza proved that she was a fit mother, and welcomed her children back into a new, safe home in East Orange, N.J. Meanwhile, her father was sentenced to a 90-year prison sentence.
After Aziza escaped her father's rule and regained parental rights of her four children, she managed to find love and was married. She bore one child, her fifth, to her new husband. However, they are no longer married and Aziza is a single mother. In addition, she lost one of her children due to complications of inbreeding.
Despite all this, Aziza has never faltered from being a model mother for her children and a positive soul in the community. She works as a professional chef to support her family, and is attending her local community college to pursue a degree in liberal arts, with a concentration in communication. Where others might have crumbled, Aziza persevered and never stopped dreaming. She found the Soroptimist Women's Opportunity Award during her search for scholarships.
“This is an amazing opportunity for mothers like myself to help live their dreams," Aziza said. "This award helped me with school, music lessons for my children and allowed me the freedom to finish writing my book.”
Aziza is working to publish her memoirs, "Unashamed," which chronicles her life experiences. She hopes that by shedding light on her own life she can help others who have had similar experiences.
“I can make a difference. I always asked what my purpose was. Even with everything that I suffered, I still had to ask God what my purpose was. Instead of just being an experience that I had, maybe this strengthened me. What doesn’t break us make us stronger.”
Soroptimist knows there is great success in Aziza's future.
The other two finalists requested name changes and anonymity for safety reasons.
Hanako Yamada's dream is to become a Haaki-shi, a licensed professional who provides massage, finger pressure, acupuncture and moxibustion (a process to stimulate blood flow) to people with physical disorders. But for awhile, that dream seemed out of sight.
At 34, Hanako was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease that eventually leads to blindness. In addition, she lived with a husband who verbally and physically abused her.
"He would get upset over trifles and hit me. I tried my best to please him and not anger him," Hanako said. "Although the physical violence was painful, the most painful thing for me was to be cursed at in fron of my children. I did not want it to have negative effects on our sons."
Each day Hanko felt like a slave and considered taking her own life. Instead, she found the inner strength to divorce her husband, take her two sons and build the life she desired. "I thought, 'I can do anything as long as I live.' And for the first time, I decided that I would live my own life under my own strength."
However, finding a job to support herself and her sons was not easy for Hanako because of her eye disease. She eventually found a job but over time, her eyesight began to deteriorate and working became increasingly difficult. She worried about about how she would provide for her children. It was at that time that Hanako discovered the Kumamoto Prefecture School for the Visually Impaired.
"In school, I was able to get to know people who shared my pain, which inspired me and gave me strenght."
Hanako currently in school and preparing to take the Haaki-shi licensing exam. With this Women’s Opportunity Award, she will undergo surgery to cure her eye disorder so that she can complete her studies and provide for her family without the constraints of abuse or the setbacks caused by her health issues.
Hope Kagoyrie is the single mother of five and a Congolese refugee who inspires everyone she meets with her optimism and can-do attitude.
Hope spent years in war-torn Congo before experiencing the murder of her husband and brothers. Because of her husband’s high-level political position, Hope was interrogated about his job and now must live under an assumed name to protect herself and her family.
The United Nations moved Hope and her five children to a Ugandan refugee camp, where she worked as a nurse for five years. While there she was attacked three times before being expedited to the United States. She experienced yet another attack before moving to her current location and starting a new life.
Hope has been learning English and dreams of working in healthcare again so she may help others. "My intent is to gain additional skills through education in order to get a job to support my family and contribute to the community," Hope said. The Women’s Opportunity Award will help fund Hope's education, enabling her to pursue a nursing degree in the U.S. and make her dreams come true.