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Helping Young Immigrants Adjust To Life In D.C.

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Wanjiru Kamau won the Purpose Prize award for her organization, African Immigrant and Refugee Foundation.
Kavitha Cardoza
Wanjiru Kamau won the Purpose Prize award for her organization, African Immigrant and Refugee Foundation.

Twenty students from Montgomery Blair High School sit in a circle and talk about their role models. It might sound like freshman orientation, or even a session with the school counselor, but actually, these students are members of the Africa Club.

Ismahan, from Somalia, tells the other students that his inspiration is his mom. Sitting next to him, Sierra Leone native Carl Davis talks about how his parents have inspired him through their hard work.

The club is run by the African Immigrant and Refugee Foundation, which was started in 2000 by Dr. Wanjiru Kamau -- herself an immigrant -- to help students who are transitioning from life in Africa to life in America. Its signature initiative is the Catching Up Program (CUP), which helps local students address issues such as identity, education interrupted by war, cultural barriers, low self-esteem and difficulties with parents and grandparents.

Students from 45 countries now use the program in nine schools throughout Maryland and D.C.

"The children have an oasis where they can share their experiences that might be bothering to them," says Kamau.

Many of the students share similar experiences, from political turmoil and war to broken economies. They don't always have the words to talk about what they've seen, or they worry if they do, a family member might get into trouble.

Audrey Tchouaoua, a senior who moved to the U.S. from Cameroon three years ago when his mother was granted political asylum, keeps the details of his immigration very short.

"She had to move here as quickly as she could. We'd rather not think about that," he says. Instead he concentrates on life in the U.S. "You have to get adapted to a new world almost! It was hard," he says, laughing.

Different food. Different behaviors. Different expectations. Audrey seemed to spend all his time and energy translating his life here into a context that made sense. It didn't help his first language was French.

"Sometimes I would know the answer but I won't know how to say it. So I would say it with another word and the students would start laughing," Audrey says, his English still halting at times.

"So I would just explain I meant this. And then I would put it in my vacab ... vocob ... vocab list," he continues, settling on the right word. "Sometimes it was funny, sometimes it was embarrassing."

As they navigate the daily triumphs and pitfalls of life in the U.S., many of the students carry an enormous burden. Oumou Diallo, one of the students playing a game at Africa Club, was born in America but her family moved back to Guinea when she was two. When she was 12, her father told her, "Don't get too much used to us."

She learned what he meant last year, when she was 16.

"The American Embassy called all the U.S. citizens to come back because the situation was not right," Oumou says. "We had no president. They were killing people, there were strikes, there was no school."

She arrived in the U.S. alone, and now lives with a cousin. Her first shock was when she got off the plane in January and saw snow.

"In Guinea we have spring and summer. So only two weathers! No ice," she says. "Here, you have to wait for spring."

Walking through the halls of her new American school, Oumou is sometimes asked questions that hurt. She remembers one classmate complimenting her on her shirt, but then following it up with a biting remark.

"She said, 'I thought people in Africa don't wear clothes and shoes,'" Oumou says. "She said, 'did you see an elephant? Do you live with animals?' I couldn't respond."

It's these sorts of exchanges make the Africa Club a "blessing," according to Oumou. The students keep up with current events in their home countries and help each other navigate challenges. Oumou struggled to learn English, but last year she won an essay competition. Although even that was bittersweet.

"At this reception, everybody was with their mom, their parents," she says. "That day I cried. Some days I really, really miss them."

While many of the students worry that people in the U.S. will understand African traditions, there are plenty of others from Africa who don't join Africa Club who are ready to leave the customs of their countries behind. Many are embarrassed by African stereotypes in the media, Kamau says. Others just want to fit in.

"They change their accent. They were feeling like we should not wear our national outfit because it is primitive, we should not have our own names because it is not Westernized enough," she says.

Still, some teenagers, including Audrey, are learning to straddle both worlds by hanging out with his friends at school and honoring his ancestors at home. He has friends of all nationalities at school, but when he comes to Africa Club, he's around family, he says.

"They helped me understand the school system: how grades work, the attendance policy ... everything. I didn't know anything," he says. "And today I like being one of the people welcoming the new ones."

Kamau wants these students to be successful in their new country by bringing along the positive aspects of the land they've left behind: especially the belief that they need to help each other. Amid an American society that values individualism she aims to remind these children of an African proverb: "I am because we are. And because we are, I am."

[Music: "Time After Time (Made Famous by Eva Cassidy)" by Zoom Karaoke from Zoom Karaoke - Eva Cassidy 2]


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