KENTWOOD, MI – If you met Shukuru Abasi now, you never would guess the bubbly, talkative 12-year-old was once a shy, quiet girl.
But four years ago, when Abasi immigrated to the United States from Tanzania, Africa, she barely talked to anyone. She only spoke Swahili, and it was hard to make friends in a brand new country where the culture and language was completely different from where she grew up.
“I was very shy when I got here – I barely talked to anyone,” she recalled.
Today, Shukuru Abasi has no problem making friends or talking to strangers – she loves to talk and meet new people, with a big smile on her face.
The 12-year-old said she was able to build confidence by coming to the Refugee Education Center in Kentwood, where she met supportive tutors and volunteers who were trained to help refugee students like her acclimate to the U.S.
“I learned a bit of English, made friends, and grew my confidence,” Abasi told MLive/The Grand Rapids Press on Thursday, May 25. “The teachers and the kids here were nice, and after that, I just became talkative, and I never stopped talking after that!”
Shukuru Abasi and her brother, 16-year-old Wilonja Abasi, are among hundreds of refugee students who have worked with the Refugee Education Center to receive after-school tutoring and social-emotional support that helps them flourish in school in the U.S.
The Refugee Education Center works closely with refugee families and school districts to help students acclimate to school and excel in their educational journey.
Founded in 2006 by a group of Somali Bantu refugees, the nonprofit has served over 4,500 refugees in West Michigan since its inception.
The nonprofit’s cornerstone K-12 program is an afterschool tutoring program called Project Faulu, which was designed to help refugee students adjust culturally and overcome past trauma that can make learning difficult.
On Thursday, May 25, the Refugee Education Center hosted an end-of-year celebration for Project Faulu, inviting the program’s 19 refugee students and 15 volunteer tutors for food and games to wrap up another successful school year.
Faulu means “success” in Swahili. Through one-on-one tutoring and peer support groups, the afterschool program focuses on literacy and language acquisition, STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) curriculum, and social-emotional wellbeing.
The program has proven to be successful: More than 80% of students enrolled in Project Faulu increased their grades by at least one letter grade in one subject or more, according to statistics on the program’s website.
Prajeeta Mangar, 12, attended the afterschool program from kindergarten to third grade. Now, Mangar is a straight-A student, and she attributes her academic success to the foundational skills she learned at the Refugee Educational Center.
“The volunteers really helped me in doing my homework and studying, and that helped me progress in school,” said Mangar, a sixth grader at Crestwood Middle School in Kentwood.
But even beyond the test scores, students in the nonprofit’s afterschool program show progress socially and emotionally, said Meg Derrer, executive director of the Refugee Education Center. The students build connections with their tutors and peers in the program, which helps foster a sense of belonging, she said.
“Some of the work we do here can’t be measured, and so we also look to make sure our students feel attached to their volunteers, that they really have a connection to them,” Derrer told MLive.
“We’re always looking to make sure students are moving in the direction of growing academically and in their social and emotional wellbeing, and feeling more and more comfortable in the school setting.”
The Refugee Education Center enrolled around 100 new students this year, Derrer said. Next year, the program is anticipating nearly 200 new students. Families who work with the nonprofit come to West Michigan from all over the world, including Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.
Krishna Bista, one of 10 refugee navigators at the Refugee Education Center, said language barriers and cultural differences are the two biggest challenges refugee students face when they come to the U.S.
Oftentimes, refugee students are used to having very strict teachers in their home countries, and it takes time for them to adjust to the more relaxed American schools, Bista said.
“The way how they get education back in the country is totally different here,” he said. “There, the teacher is more strict back in their country. Here, the teacher is open to the students. So it is very difficult for them (students) because they are coming from the strict (teacher), and now you are in a more open space.”
Bista came to the U.S. from Nepal in 2008, and became one of the first refugee navigators for the Refugee Education Center. He works with families when they first arrive in the U.S. and helps them acclimate, as well as get their children enrolled in school.
His son, 8-year-old Grishal Bista, also was enrolled in Project Faulu.
Krishna Bista said he’s focusing on education and outreach to make sure all refugee families in West Michigan know about the Refugee Education Center. He said the nonprofit can help bridge families and schools so that students feel more comfortable navigating the U.S. education system.
“It not only benefits my child, it also benefits the community,” he said.
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