Civil war survivor who immigrated to Yellowknife takes top job at YWCA NWT

A survivor of the Sierra Leone civil war who immigrated to Yellowknife when she was 16 has been named the new executive director of the YWCA NWT.

Having experienced and witnessed hardships, Hawa Dumbuya-Sesay says she’s passionate about helping people

Hawa Dumbuya-Sesay was named the new executive director of the NWT YWCA. Most recently, she was the organization's director of child and youth services. (Sima Sahar Zerehi/CBC)

A woman who experienced hardships as a child in her home country's civil war during the 1990s is taking over the top job at the Northwest Territories YWCA.

Hawa Dumbuya-Sesay says she's anxious about becoming the executive director, but also excited to help women and children who are going through challenges.

"I've been through many challenges in my life and I've seen others go through the same thing, so my goal is just really to try and create a difference by affecting change," she said Monday. 

Dumbuya-Sesay takes over from Lyda Fuller who will be retiring in November after serving as the YWCA NWT's executive director for the past 23 years.

Dumbuya-Sesay was most recently was the YWCA NWT's director of child and youth services. She said her priority will be ensuring the safety of women in northern communities by looking at the organization's violence prevention work and the different options available for housing, including expanding Lynn's Place, which offers safe housing for women leaving violent relationships.

"It's … seeing what we can do during these very difficult times and seeing how we can still make things work and still provide services to women and children that do need it," she said.

Fled civil war in Sierra Leone

Dumbuya-Sesay knows what violence, unstable housing and hardships look like. She and her family fled the civil war in Sierra Leone, which began in 1991 and lasted until 2002. They moved to Yellowknife in May of 2002 when Dumbuya-Sesay was 16 years old.

She said in Sierra Leone the family was homeless for a while after soldiers burned down her grandmother and her father's homes. 

"I remember it like it was yesterday," she said. "The soldiers came in and told us to get out or else they put us on fire too. That's when my dad was almost killed in front of me."

I've been through many challenges in my life and I've seen others go through the same thing.- Hawa Dubuya-Sesay, incoming YWCA NWT executive director 

The family lived wherever they could before returning to their burned down home and living there.

"It was hard going through that as a child, just not knowing and also just struggling to even get an education because it was in and out of school," she said.

Although coming to Canada was a huge culture shock, Dumbuya-Sesay said it was also a "huge blessing."

She went to Sir John Franklin High School for three years, graduating in 2005, before going on to Aurora College to earn a diploma in social work. She then obtained a degree in social work from Yukon College before completing a master's of social work at the University of Calgary.

Dumbuya-Sesay has a diverse background in social work, having worked with women who have experienced family violence, in child protection and youth programs, in maternal mortality reduction programming, project and financial management and crisis intervention.

"I want to be able to see a better world, especially for women," she said. "Hardships hit women and children harder. They're the most vulnerable. I've been blessed to be free from violence and this is the best way I can think of giving back."

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.


With files from Loren McGinnis


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