Meet the Winners of the Women’s Community Catalyst Award

Stories from the field | Mar 19, 2024 07:03 pm

As we celebrate Women’s History Month, we are thrilled to share the winners of our inaugural Women’s Community Catalyst Award. This year marked the first edition of this special recognition, and we were truly touched to receive nominations for 20 incredible women. Each nominee holds a unique story of strength and impact, deserving of celebration and honor. While the difficult choice was made to select 5 winners, we want to extend our heartfelt thanks to all the nominators for taking the time to highlight these inspiring individuals.

Our award celebrates the exceptional leadership, character, and dedication of immigrant and refugee women, including trans women and non-binary individuals, who have made a profound difference in their communities.

Join us in celebrating these remarkable women and their inspiring journeys filled with resilience, empowerment, and advocacy. Learn more about our award winners and their impactful efforts in championing inclusivity, equality, and the rights of immigrant communities.

Sulma Franco

Sulma is the Immigration Campaign Manager at Grassroots Leadership. She manages two immigration programs at the organization. IFA-ICE Fuera De Austin (ICE Out of Austin) and Mujeres Luchadoras. Both programs intersect between the criminal legal system and the Immigration enforcement system that advocates for those detained and seeking leadership power to overcome deportation in Texas. She is a Lesbian Guatemalan woman who advocated and fought her way to seek sanctuary after facing deportation. Now, she does the same for others who reach out to Grassroots Leadership or through our partnered organizations.

Over the last three years, Sulma has helped organize a campaign called End Operation Lone Star along with her peers and members of the campaign. Grassroots Leadership hosted the first-of-its-kind mission to “Witness OLS,” where they worked with allies, funders, and organizers across the state to bring more awareness to the harmful polices of Operation Lone Star. 

Marina Chakmakchi

Marina Chakmakchi is a multilingual international professional with a passion for service dedicated to delivering meaningful services to people from diverse backgrounds and cultures. She has worked as a women’s rights lawyer in Russia, a student advisor in England, and an ESL teacher in Turkey. Marina first came to Maine in 2003 as an international student to study law.

Armed with a Master’s in Public Policy and Management (University of Southern Maine) and a Master of Laws (University of Maine School of Law), Marina guides immigrant-origin students and internationally-trained professionals as a Global Talent Navigator at the University of Southern Maine’s Office of Equity, Inclusion, and Community Impact. Her understanding of barriers faced by immigrants seeking higher education, coupled with her firsthand experience navigating different cultures, allows her to advocate effectively for their needs.

Before USM, Marina was employed at Portland Adult Education and the Office of Maine Refugee Services, focusing on providing support and resources to refugees, asylum seekers, asylees, and other immigrants in Maine.

Originally from Russia, her story extends beyond borders: Cambridge, UK, and Istanbul, Turkey, played their parts in shaping her global citizen perspective. Today, Marina makes Yarmouth, Maine, her home, alongside her husband and two daughters.

Magybet Mendez

At age 3, Magybet Mendez immigrated to the United States from Tetela De Ocampo, Puebla, Mexico. Magybet is a DACA recipient who started the 501c3 nonprofit, immigo. She understands firsthand what living in the country as an undocumented person means and is making a difference in her community. Immigo’s core values are part of her own which are; build trust through effective resources and communication, and always try to do right by others. Magybet works tirelessly toward her goal of advancing immigrant rights and helping to make resources accessible. Under her leadership, immigo continues expanding access to high quality services and implements programs for all immigrants. She is actively on the ground organizing, advocating, educating, and providing services to people of all ages and nationalities.

Karina Ambartsoumian-Clough

Born in Soviet Ukraine, of Armenian descent, Karina came to the U.S. as an asylum seeker with her family in 1996 when she was eight years old. Five years later, the final appeal of her family’s asylum claim was denied, and she received a “final order of removal” from the U.S., and was told to “self deport”.

Karina was too young to qualify for a passport when she left Soviet Ukraine with her parents. Now, years later, she has no country to return home to. Unable to meet the requirements of the nationality law of the newly established Republic of Ukraine, Karina does not qualify for a Ukrainian nationality / citizenship, making “self deportation” or travel out of the United States impossible. Karina is – literally — a Citizen of Nowhere, through no choice or fault of her own. In 2013, Karina married Kevin, a U.S. citizen, yet her Karina’s stateless status prevented her from becoming a U.S. citizen.

After sharing her story in public, Karina connected with other stateless people in the U.S for the first time in 2017. It soon became clear that a formal structure was needed to connect their ideas and stories with other stateless people, stakeholders, advocates, legal community and academia. As its first Executive Director, Karina continues to lead United Stateless on the principle that those directly impacted can lead and are experts because of their lived experiences. For her work and dedication, Karina has been honored with the 2020 Women’s Refugee Commission Voices of Courage Award and to have been recognized as the 2021 Women Leading the 175th Award by PA State Representative Mary Isaacson.

Vanuza Fernanda Mateus

Vanuza is the executive director of Yetu Housing and Community Services. She is deeply committed to the community and addressing social challenges. In 2019, Vanuza was a pivotal logistics coordinator for the Angolan Community’s food program and outreach efforts in Maine, one of the big ECBOs. She has a profound understanding of the struggles faced by migrants and asylum seekers in accessing housing and essential services — she came to the USA from Angola.

Last year, Vanuza and her two friends established a consulting business aimed at helping individuals with housing navigation, cultural brokerage, and translation services. Her initiative stems from personal experiences as an asylum seeker and her dedication to supporting others in similar circumstances.