In one corner of a large, sunny room in the garden level of the Refugee Education Center, East Kentwood student Yasmin Alemayehu listened as siblings Zubeda Abdalla and her big brother, Abdalla, tried to amp up the passion in their voices.
The Excel Charter Academy students had written speeches on being part of the refugee community that they would give at an upcoming Grand Rapids City Commission meeting.
“I grew up in a Muslim household, where helping others is very important,” said Yasmin, who is Somali. “A lot of kids here are Somali, so I connect with them. They become like part of your family.”
On the other side of the room, Lily Montague of East Grand Rapids High School offered hints as Challenger Elementary student Fatima Kromha used a pink crayon to fill in numbers on a worksheet.
“It’s an experience you can’t get doing anything else,” said Lily, who got involved at the center in January through her school’s Key Club. “I learn from them as much as they learn from me.”
Added Emma Bielski, of Grandville High School: “I get to learn about their experiences, which gives me a different outlook. I think that’s a good life skill to have.”
Students from a handful of area high schools are making an impact at two West Michigan organizations tasked with helping refugee students and their families succeed: the Refugee Education Center in Kentwood; and the Learning Café, which operates out of the Cathedral of St. Andrew in downtown Grand Rapids.
Providing Multiple Supports
REC coordinator Mimi Workman said more than 160 volunteers logged 7,500 hours there last year, serving 1,012 refugee students and their families — the agency’s busiest year yet. Workman estimates they reach about 10 percent of the area’s refugee population that would qualify to benefit.
Besides tutoring, the Kentwood center supports families in other aspects of education including with enrollment, conferences, social and emotional support in navigating the U.S. education system, and working with schools and businesses on professional development regarding the refugee population.
Forest Hills Northern senior Zoe Reep also has volunteered at the center, and last year she organized a coin war at her school that raised $2,000 for its programs.
“I want to go into teaching, so I thought it was a good first step for me,” Zoe said, “and I grew up respecting people of other cultures, so this was a good fit for me.”
She recently spearheaded a challenge among Forest Hills Northern, Central and Eastern highs, East Grand Rapids and Grand Rapids Christian highs that raised $4,841.
An even more long-term effect: The fundraiser has raised awareness in her school about volunteering at the center.
“People here didn’t know that in just a 20-minute drive they can go tutor kids and embrace other cultures,” she said. “Both years that we’ve done the fundraiser kids have asked me how they can get involved. There’s a lot more people from our school working there now, and that’s pretty cool to see.”
Building Relationships is Key
At the downtown Grand Rapids Learning Café, students from East Kentwood, East Grand Rapids, Catholic Central and who are home-schooled also volunteer.
Lisa McManus, who heads the Learning Café tutoring program, said isolation from English speakers is a barrier to learning not only English, but also to learning American culture and the social skills needed to integrate.
“Our mission is to supplement the work of agencies and schools by providing refugee kids and their families with opportunities to build relationships with English-speaking families,” McManus said.
Many refugees who are helped by resources such as the REC and the Learning Café return to help others.
“Kids that come through here don’t take it for granted,” Workman said. “They’re very resilient and determined, and that also means they’re willing to help others.”
Added McManus: “Volunteers strive to help these new Americans achieve and become full participants in our way of life, instead of members of a community on the fringe. And they learn how our community can be enriched when it’s inclusive.”
Abdi Ahmed left Somalia at age 5 and lived for a time in Ethiopia and Kenya, before he and his four siblings came to the U.S. and joined the Forest Hills Public Schools district in 2014.
They spoke next to no English, he recalled, and American culture was “very different from any part of East Africa we had come from.” They met other refugees at the Refugee Education Center, and he has volunteered there, as well as at Bethany Christian Services.
“I think I do have a better understanding of what it is like for them being new to this country, even if I don’t speak their language,” Abdi said. “I have a good heart for people, and I understand what they have been through.”