By Shayna Mace | Photography by Hillary Schave, shot on location at Ellsworth Block
“Let me just tell you that all of us have a story. I think women — we just rock!” says Fabiola Hamdan.
Hamdan’s own story began in La Paz, Bolivia, where she lived with her parents, brother and sister. In the ’80s, Hamdan’s mother was diagnosed with a brain tumor, which brought part of her family to Madison so her mother could be treated at UW Hospital. (A family acquaintance knew someone who worked there, and they recommended she be seen there.) Although Hamdan was planning to stay back in La Paz with her father to attend college, the pair ended up in Madison as well to assist her mother after her brain surgery.
To cover the cost of the surgery and medications, Hamdan says her dad, who was a principal, and her mom, who was a teacher, sold most of their assets in Bolivia. In Madison, her dad took a job as an assistant cook at a restaurant and her mom cleaned offices and fast-food restaurants. They lived in a three- bedroom apartment on Tree Lane, and the kids attended Madison Memorial High School (now Vel Phillips Memorial High School).
“It was a shock for me [being here]. My brother and sister were able to pick up English going to high school. But I knew if we were going to be here for the long run, I needed to learn English. So, I took some ESL classes at Madison College,” explains Hamdan.
Hamdan also needed a way to support herself, so she and her sister cleaned offices and Hamdan worked at fast-food restaurants. Then, she got an associate degree in computer operations at Madison College.
She says she’s had many “angels in her life” that encouraged her along the way to dream big — such as eventually earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from UW-Madison in social work and urging her to apply for job opportunities that she would excel at.
In 1994, she joined the Dane County Department of Human Services (DCDHS) as a community social worker. In 2017, she become the county’s first Immigrations Affairs Specialist. But, her role was dwarfed by the great need for immigration services.
“I thought, ‘This is not a job for one person. This needs to grow.’ I said, ‘We need to create a unit,’” she explains.
Now, she oversees two staffers who connect asylum seekers, undocumented refugees and immigrants with resources in the community. Her office helps immigrants find legal assistance and navigate the complex immigration system — including obtaining housing, transportation, work visas, green cards, DACA renewals and permanent U.S. citizen status (the latter being the most difficult and time-consuming, she says). Currently, her office is working with 600-plus clients.
Hamdan’s own scrappy experience is why she helps others make their way in this country. She acknowledges the U.S. immigration system is broken, and it can be discouraging working within it.
“People ask me why I’m a social worker. I really learned from my parents because they were teachers and traveled in rural areas of La Paz … and worked with the poorest of the poor. That all registered in my head. They say you’re a product of your environment.”