Alumni Yusuf Nessary Transforms Lives in Africa and Middle East

Yusuf Nessary ’13 likely wouldn’t be running a nonprofit out of Houston that builds water well systems, schools, and sustainable farming initiatives in Africa and the Middle East had he not attended Saint Mary’s College. He is among the thousands of Saint Mary’s students whose lives have been transformed over the past 21 years by the College’s Catholic Institute for Lasallian Social Action (CILSA) and their far-reaching efforts in the areas of social justice and civic engagement—efforts that have brought to life the words of Saint John Baptist de La Salle: “To touch the hearts of your students is the greatest miracle you can perform.” 

CILSA encompasses a broad range of community engagement and social justice initiatives that affect nearly 30 percent of undergraduate students each year. Their work includes the educational programs Jumpstart and Monument Corps for Middle School Success, MICAH Summer Fellowship, Public Service Internship, Engaged Learning Facilitators, and centralized support and training for faculty and students in community engagement courses.

For Nessary, a child of Afghan refugees, CILSA fundamentally altered his career ambition after he entered Saint Mary’s as a pre-med student, and it inspired him to find his passion for affecting the lives of others.

“The most prestigious role you can have as a child of an immigrant refugee is becoming a doctor, lawyer, or engineer,” said Nessary, who grew up in South Central Los Angeles. Instead, after volunteering through Jumpstart, CILSA’s signature preschool literacy program, and taking a CILSA-taught January Term class in Rwanda, he changed his major to sociology. Today, Nessary runs Zam Zam Water, a nonprofit he founded six years ago. In that time, it has created over 90 water projects on two continents, helped cultivate 450 farms, and built four schools. “When I started with CILSA’s Jumpstart program, I knew I wanted to end up in the nonprofit sector,” he said. “I could see myself in the children we were serving.”

As CILSA staff and their associates are quick to point out, the cornerstone of CILSA’s philosophy is to approach community engagement as a double benefit: for students and for the communities in which they serve. It’s a sentiment that aligns perfectly with the verse from the Book of Micah (6:8) that lies at the heart of all that CILSA does. “And what does the Lord require of you? To do justice and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

For CILSA Director Jennifer Pigza, to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly means faculty, staff, and students must ask hard questions as they build relationships with communities. 

“CILSA’s vision is that we are working toward the day when all people collaborate to enact justice, inclusion, and sustainability in all aspects of life. To work toward this vision with integrity, we need to approach internal and external partners with deep listening and wide-awakeness to the ways that power and oppression affect the work,” she said. 

Perhaps that’s one reason the word help is nonexistent at Zam Zam Water. “Service is about a two-way street; it’s about a conversation,” Nessary said. “That’s the one aspect I learned the most about CILSA and use to this very day.”