Reflecting on 2023 and What We’re Looking Forward to in 2024

Tuesday January 16, 2024

Our partners, the many organizations led by immigrants, refugees, and community members with lived experience, never fail to inspire us at the WES Mariam Assefa Fund as we work at the nexus of so much energy and dedication to building inclusive communities and economies. As we kick off the New Year, the Fund team is reflecting on the organizations and leaders that inspired us last year, and looking ahead to what we’re excited about this year. In 2024, we’ll celebrate the Fund’s fifth anniversary, and World Education Services (WES) will celebrate its 50th anniversary. 

Since the Fund launched in 2019, we’ve taken an inclusive “learning by doing” approach and have been committed to sharing what we learn, so we’re especially excited to reflect on the Fund’s journey, celebrate the achievements of our partners, and share what’s next to drive impact for immigrants and refugees.  

At WES, the Fund has the privilege of being part of a self-sustaining social enterprise that generates surplus revenues that WES then reinvests in the communities it serves. In 2023, we funded a total of 84 organizations across the United States and Canada, both deepening existing relationships and reaching 40 new partners. Over US$7.5 million was awarded through grants, impact investments, and partnerships, supporting leaders who are increasing access to opportunity, building wealth, shifting power, and advancing justice for immigrants and refugees.  

We continue to find new ways to deepen our trust-based approach and support our grantee partners “beyond the check.” For example, in 2023, we launched a capacity strengthening opportunity for partners to request additional funding for operational needs, provided communications support, and hosted in-person and virtual network building. We also partnered with Just Strategies, a mission-driven consulting firm, to help us evaluate and improve our efforts to center justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion in our philanthropic and investment practices and better support our grantee and investee partners. In 2024, we’re excited to build on all of these efforts. 

Over the past year, our team also grew to comprise 17 colleagues who bring diverse voices and lived experience to our work, including our new Senior Director, Léa Tienou-Gustafson. Below, our team shares personal highlights from 2023 and what has us energized for 2024.  

Abby Frias, Senior Grants Associate:  
“Looking ahead to 2024, I am excited to continue deepening relationships and building team culture and trust among the team during our Fund retreat. I look forward to convening with colleagues in-person and creating time for reflection, community and celebration!”

Ani Gurtsishvili, Canada Program Associate:  
“I was inspired by my on-site visit with our grantee partner ActionDignity during the 2023 Metropolis Identities Summit in Calgary. Witnessing ActionDignity’s commitment to collaborating with racialized populations, advocating for labor rights, and effecting change for newcomers was exceptionally motivating.”

Ashley Taylor, Senior Partnership Associate:  
“In 2024, I am particularly excited about our “Climate Justice by Youth for Youth” initiative in collaboration with other funders in Canada, aimed at addressing the unique challenges faced by newcomer youth in the context of climate justice. The potential for positive change, education, and empowerment is promising and aligns with our vision of creating a more sustainable and equitable future for immigrants and refugees.”

Erika Perez, Team Coordinator:  
“An inspiration for me in 2023 was the opportunity to join the Fund team! In just my first few months, I’ve seen the team’s dedication and success in supporting organizations and communities through its funding.”

Jawad Shahabi, Canada Program Manager:  
“This year, I am excited to explore more participatory grantmaking approaches, including through the experiences of our partners in Montreal, and move forward with new participatory initiatives to support immigrant and refugee communities.”

Karla Gregorio, Senior U.S. Program Manager: 
“In 2024, I am excited to launch a new funding opportunity to support and strengthen civic leadership for immigrants and refugees in the U.S., Elevating Migrant Leadership: Building Inclusive Futures. Stay tuned to learn more!” 

Lauren Crain, Director, U.S. Programs and Strategy: 
“A highlight of our work in 2023 was the launch of various capacity strengthening initiatives for our U.S. partner community, including supplemental grants for grassroots organizations, communications coaching with Marc Fest, and justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion workshops and coaching with our partners at Just Strategies.” 

Léa Tienou-Gustafson, Senior Director:  
“It has been a joy and privilege to join the WES Mariam Assefa Fund team in 2023. I’ve been inspired by the incredible community — the Fund staff, our grantee and investee partners, and our philanthropic colleagues, who are all working to drive change. At the end of the year, I had the opportunity to convene with grantee partners in Toronto and Washington, D.C., which was truly inspiring.” 

Lei Ma, Senior U.S. Program Associate:  
“In 2023, I was lucky to have joined two different site visits organized by our grantee partners, the African Bridge Network and the National Fund for Workforce Solutions. I am deeply inspired by our partners’ commitment to promoting equitable employer practices that support immigrants and refugees through recruitment, upskilling, mentorship, and more.” 

Marina Nuri, Director, Canada Programs and Strategy:  
“In 2023, I was inspired to see the participatory grantmaking approach we piloted in 2021 in Peel region of Ontario getting a lot of interest from other funders. Our recent partnership with Foundation for Greater Montréal is an example of operationalizing this approach in a different context, and a learning opportunity for the funders involved.” 

Matthias Pries, Impact Investing Manager: 
“One particularly inspiring highlight from 2023 was bringing all our impact investee partners together in San Francisco for a day of community building and brainstorming on collective action for the field.” 

Nomzana Augustin, Associate Director, Partnerships and Strategic Initiatives:  
“In 2023, I was inspired by the subgrantees of the Fund’s co-funded partnerships with Echoing Green, California Dignity for Families Fund, and the Black Migrant Power Fund – all of which are organizational leaders, power builders, and community organizers shifting inefficiencies within the immigration system daily.” 

Shevani Khatri, U.S. Program Associate:  
“In 2023, I was deeply inspired by meeting our Rural Immigrant Success Exchange partners in New Orleans at the JFF Horizons summit and learning how to create more inclusive economies for immigrants and refugees living in rural areas.” 

Sifat Yusuf, Canada Program Manager:   
“This year, I’m excited about highlighting our Canadian grantee partners’ excellent achievements through blogs, publications, and conferences. Everyone should know how tremendously hardworking they’ve been despite all the challenges they face!” 

Silan Akgul, Senior Communications Manager:  
“In 2024, I am excited to celebrate the milestone of the Fund’s 5-year anniversary! As someone who joined WES in 2020 it’s been incredible to watch our community of partners grow.” 

Smitha Das, Director of Mission and Impact Investing:  
“2023 marked our third year of impact investing, and we experienced tremendous growth – with 25 partners in our portfolio now. It is always the work and perspectives of our partners and their teams that inspire and ground me.” 


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