When Walter Lam arrived in San Diego in 1986 as a political refugee from Uganda, he had no idea that within 13 years, he would be the President and Chief Executive Officer of an agency with 53 employees, a budget of $1.5 million and an agenda to help refugees like himself.
Lam was an agricultural engineer by profession, until political persecution forced him to flee to Kenya, where with the help of Amnesty International and the La Jolla Presbyterian Church, he managed to resettle in the United States.
Lam's son died in March 1999 after police beatings, despite his non-political stance. Lam, his wife and daughter were unable to attend the funeral because it was still unsafe for him to return to Uganda.
In his first years in San Diego, Lam's main preoccupation was to find a job, become self-sufficient and try to bring his family over to America. It was difficult to adjust, because he was unable to resume his original profession. As more and more refugees arrived in San Diego, Lam decided to use what he had learned to help refugees settle in. Working out of a garage, he started to assist other Africans who came to him. The Alliance for African Assistance, which Lam founded in 1989, now employs staff from 16 different countries.
In 1991, the Board of Directors decided the Alliance should assist not only Africans, but also refugees from all over the world. In 1999, it helped 23,000 people, including 107 refugees from Kosovo. Projects include working with schools on behalf of refugee children and with the San Diego Police to develop youth initiatives to combat inner-city gangs.
Well before becoming a naturalised American citizen in January 2000, Lam was recognised for his leadership in the immigrant community of San Diego.
He is a member of the California Refugee Health Advisory Board, the California State Advisory Committee for Refugees, the California Refugee Forum, the San Diego Police Review Board, the Community Building Committee of United Way, and the Prostate Cancer Community Advisory Committee of the Scripps Cancer Center.