Emma Yaaka snaps his fingers to make sure his audience is listening. He wears a chartreuse polo shirt and AirPods as he speaks into the camera. “Please, whenever you cough,” he says as he fake coughs into his fist, “cover your mouth.” He pauses for emphasis between each word and ruffles through some papers on his desk. He holds up a picture of himself, partially disguised in a baseball hat, with a tissue over his nose. “COVID-19” is typed across his forearm. A banner at the top of the page reads “COVER YOUR COUGHS AND SNEEZES.” “Please do this,” he says.
Yaaka is a medical case manager for refugees at Heartland Alliance. He brings refugees to doctor’s appointments, translates for them, and makes sure clients with chronic illnesses know how to manage their conditions. But after 5 PM on weekdays and on weekends, he sits inside of his closet filming videos for his YouTube channel WordOut. He addresses the camera with the same intensity I imagine he uses when speaking to clients. His purpose is the same: he wants to give refugees the information they need.
Yaaka started uploading videos to his channel on April 14, when Illinois had recorded 23,247 coronavirus infections and 868 deaths. In some videos, Yaaka quotes information about the disease from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. In others, he interviews experts who give practical advice to refugees on how they can protect themselves. Nothing Yaaka says in his videos is new. While the facts and figures are widely available across the Internet, his perspective is not. What matters is that the information is coming out of his mouth. Yaaka is a fellow refugee, and he speaks to his viewers with compassion, from a place of deep knowing.
“Being that we [as refugees] have limited families around us, visiting our friends, visiting other people around the community where we are living, it is so essential,” he says in one video. “But at this point we are encouraging all refugees and immigrants to make sure to please stay at home.”
Yaaka was born in the Manafwa district of eastern Uganda in 1992. He fled violence in his household as a teenager. After years hiding in Uganda, Yaaka arrived at the Kenyan border in 2015 at the age of 23. He befriended a truck driver whom he convinced to smuggle him across the border. Yaaka arrived in the capital city of Nairobi confused and alone. He wandered until he came upon a group of people sleeping on the streets. He soon realized they were refugees waiting to register with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, or UNHCR. He had learned about refugees in school, but never imagined that one day he would become one. He got in line too.
Four months into his stay in Nairobi, as he waited for his application to process, humanitarian aid agencies in the city announced they were looking for two refugees, one Ugandan and one Congolese, to help connect other urban refugees with medical services. Refugees in Kenya are legally only allowed to live in refugee camps. But the UNHCR estimates that about 16 percent of Kenya’s refugee population live in urban areas. Agencies in these urban centers have limited resources, so they often enlist qualified refugees to serve as case managers in exchange for a small living stipend.
As a Ugandan fluent in four languages and certified as an EMT and in first aid, Yaaka got the job. In his new position, he’d visit around 100 refugees at home every month and distribute medication, condoms, and clean water tablets to those who couldn’t afford them; connect those who had trouble with the Kenyan police (who have a documented history of abuse) with legal services; and translate for refugees at medical appointments. If a refugee arrived in Nairobi without a place to stay, Yaaka would invite them to stay in his home until they found their bearings.
In July 2017, the U.S. approved Yaaka’s resettlement application. He made his way across the Atlantic to a small studio in Rogers Park where light poured in through the windows. His resettlement agency, Heartland Alliance, first got him a job on the janitorial staff at a hospital in Evanston. As he emptied the trash in one of the labs, he began speaking with the researchers. He relayed stories of his work in Nairobi and all the certifications he’d racked up in lieu of a formal degree. He joined the lab until he became a medical case manager for Heartland.
Yaaka and his friend Tracey Morrison (who edits WordOut’s videos) had been thinking about launching a YouTube channel long before the pandemic. Morrison volunteered with refugee families through the resettlement agency HIAS-Chicago. (The agency’s tagline is some variation of “We used to welcome refugees because they were Jewish. Today HIAS welcomes refugees because we are Jewish”; the State Department revoked the agency’s contract in December 2017 as it moved to close all programs resettling fewer than 100 refugees per year.) Morrison would help refugees answer their questions: Where can I go to learn English? What is Medicaid? How can I find a dentist who speaks Arabic? What sort of winter coat do I need?
She met Yaaka in 2018, who by then had lived in Chicago for a year and wanted to speak at an event called the Chicago Jews for Refugees Assembly. Morrison offered to help him write and edit his speech. The event took place the day after a shooter stormed the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, killing 11 Jewish worshipers. The shooter said he targeted the synagogue specifically for its work with HIAS. In the shadow of the massacre, the audience sat captivated as Yaaka stood on the stage and spoke about his journey from Uganda and the challenges faced by refugees in the U.S. “We are helped by [the] government and the agencies which brings us here,” he said. “They help us for three months, and then they’re done with us. We are still new. We don’t know anything.” Many came up to him after to ask how they could help, and if he wanted to speak at other events. Yaaka soon found himself looped into a network of well-meaning Americans (and some Canadians) who had the time, resources, and desire to help refugees, but who didn’t quite know where to begin.
Once he started at Heartland, Yaaka saw an entire class of workers whose job was to provide services to refugees. During his own resettlement process, he of course knew these agencies existed, but he didn’t know the extent of available resources. He certainly didn’t know how to access them. This seemed like a surmountable problem: People need help. Help exists. Why couldn’t anyone figure out a way to bridge this gap?
Yaaka thought back to the time when he was new in the country, and he had a realization: refugees love YouTube. “The free time that [refugees] have, they spend on their phones,” Yaaka said. On breaks, during lunch, after work, “We are watching videos from back home on YouTube. We can’t understand the news or other things on the TV—other American things—so we watch things from back home. It’s the same thing I used to do.”
If he could make videos in the four languages he speaks—English, Luganda, Lumasaba, and Swahili—he could explain to refugees how to access the available services. Maybe the videos themselves would be information enough, or maybe refugees would then reach out to service providers on their own. Either way, he could build the resource-knowledge infrastructure that he felt was seriously lacking in Chicago’s refugee community.
As Yaaka and Morrison started to plan for the channel, the coronavirus pandemic erupted. The work now felt urgent. For many refugees, that gap in knowledge could be deadly. Though Yaaka had a full-time job and Morrison was finishing her thesis in her final semester of grad school, they mobilized quickly. Only a month into WordOut’s life, the channel has published ten videos.
Dr. Gary Kaufman, a pediatrician and internal medicine physician who has worked with refugees for nearly 20 years, features prominently in four videos on the channel. Kaufman said Yaaka came to him a few weeks into the pandemic. “His words to me, which kind of surprised me, were ‘[Refugees in Chicago] know you and they trust you,'” Kaufman says. “‘If you do something, they’ll listen to you.'”
Over the years, Kaufman has found that patients generally receive information best when it is communicated in their own language and from a member of their own community. Many of his patients were Bosnian and Russian in the early 2000s. “Back home, they didn’t treat TB. And they were told that the medication was toxic,” he says. “I had to convince people to take nine months of Isoniazid, and moms specifically would be afraid I was gonna put their children into liver failure.” Eventually he realized that patients were more receptive to treatment if a Bosnian or Russian member of his staff explained the information instead. If Yaaka thought refugees would heed Kaufman’s advice, who was he to say no? “So, I said, where do I sign up?”
If YouTube is WordOut’s means of production, WhatsApp is its distribution pipeline, a messaging app hugely popular with refugees. Yaaka’s own account is stuffed with conversations with refugee clients and friends who live in far-flung places from Iceland to Nairobi. So far, WordOut’s reach is modest. Videos receive about 70 views on average. And even though some commenters address him by name—”[Good] job Dr. Emma thanks for teaching the world”—Yaaka doesn’t know who they are, which he says is a good thing. It means he’s reaching those beyond his friends. One distribution restriction Yaaka didn’t quite foresee, though, is that because WordOut is a personal project (and not sanctioned by Heartland) he’s not allowed to share the videos with his own clients, about 100 people by his estimate.
Kaufman, though, thinks the channel’s independence is what makes it powerful. “When a community leads a project with specific goals it goes much better than if somebody comes in and decides what you need.”
The biggest challenge for the two-person operation has been language. So far, WordOut only has English-language videos. Yaaka and Morrison ideally want community members to help produce videos in languages like Arabic, Amharic, and Rohingya. It’s hard for Morrison to edit in a language she doesn’t understand. They’ve considered dubbing the existing English videos, or even Zooming while Morrison edits so Yaaka can translate in real time.
On a warm Saturday evening in May I join a Zoom call with Yaaka, who’s sitting in his closet, and Morrison, who’s in a plush chair, a more traditional work-from-home spot. Yaaka, the more loquacious of the two, rattles off possible solutions to WordOut’s hiccups, reads a list of prospective guests, and tells me plans for the future. He explains that he doesn’t want refugees just to learn from the videos, but he wants them to be involved in the creative process. He says he enlisted his friend Patrick, a young Rwandan refugee interested in videography, to film the interviews with Kaufman. Some technical problems ensued, which Morrison and Yaaka describe in great detail, each sentence of the story punctuated with a laugh.
“We’re learning every time, though,” Morrison says.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Yaaka says, “learning.” v