Best of Scene

Students volunteer time and expertise to local immigrant community

By Megan Haley, Photos By Chris Hunt '07
The makeshift classroom buzzed with life as dozens of Somali Bantu children worked with PLU student-volunteers to solve math problems, sound out words and learn their colors.

Jessica Baumer ’09 tried to get 13-year-old Murjan Jatar to focus on completing his math homework. But the middle-schooler, who calls himself “Tex,” insisted she first read a rough draft of a love letter he wrote for his girlfriend.

Like most teenagers, school is the last thing on Jatar’s mind. He is one of 26 Somali refugee children who have recently resettled in Tacoma and participated in a unique tutoring program during the spring semester. The program was developed through a joint effort by PLU and St. Mark’s Lutheran Church by the Narrows in Tacoma.

“With the older kids, it’s hard to get them to focus,” Baumer said. “I’m there to teach them, but I feel like we’re friends, too.”

Baumer was one of 19 PLU students and one staff member who devoted two hours every Wednesday evening to the program. Kerri Greenaway ’08, a social work major, was hired by St. Mark’s to develop and coordinate the program.

Former slaves, the Somalis who participated in the program are from the Bantu tribe, and remained a persecuted minority there even after emancipation. When civil war erupted in 1991, the Bantu were forced to flee on foot to refugee camps in Kenya. There, the survivors languished for 10 years or more.

The United States eventually granted them refugee status, and nearly 12,000 Bantu immigrated in early 2003.

Bantu refugees began arriving in the Pacific Northwest about two-and-a-half years ago. While King and Snohomish counties are home to a large population of refugees, a small band of families have formed a tight-knit community in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood, said Brigitte Fisher, social services and employment coordinator for Tacoma Community House, which is where the tutoring sessions were held.

Fisher’s organization is dedicated to helping immigrants and refugees, and donated two classroom spaces and a variety of learning materials, such as workbooks, puzzles and flashcards, for the tutoring program. Fisher estimates roughly 40 Bantu adults and children live in Tacoma, with many cramming families of five or more into one tiny apartment. 

St. Mark’s involvement with the refugees began in 2004 when the church decided to sponsor two Bantu families – a total of 12 people. The church, whose members include a number of PLU alumni, formed a 12-member African Family Support Team to help the families get settled and adjust to life in America, said John Summerour ’87, a member of the team.

“It was not long after their arrival that we recognized the families had special challenges in the areas of education,” Summerour said. “They had no access to formal education in Somalia, and when they arrived, they were illiterate in their own language.

“We realized the kids were going to have special needs, and it became obvious they needed additional tutoring.”

The church applied for and received a $3,000 grant from Wheat Ridge Ministries, an independent Lutheran charitable organization. The grant launched the tutoring program designed for the refugee children, the first of its kind in Tacoma, Summerour said.

The church contacted PLU looking for a student to coordinate the program. Summerour said the church realized PLU had the expertise to help the children and the university was active in the community, so it “seemed like a logical possibility.” 

Social work professor JoDee Keller put the church in contact with Greenaway, who jumped at the opportunity. She spent J-Term organizing the program and recruiting tutors from across campus, largely from the social work and education programs.

“The idea was to help these kids be successful in school … helping with homework, communicating with them and hoping they don’t get lost in the system,” Keller said. “The emphasis is on learning, but also mentoring and helping them adjust to the Western lifestyle.”

Each week, the volunteers worked with the Bantu children one-on-one or in small groups. Since the Bantu were oppressed in Somalia, most of the children have had little or no education, but they did pick up some English while living in refugee camps, Greenaway explained.

“We mostly help them with literacy skills, math and language,” Greenaway said. “They trick you in English. They can speak fluently, but they can’t read you ‘Harry Potter.’”

When the children entered the American public school system, they were placed near the same grade level as children their age, even though they lack many basic skills, Greenaway said.

Ashley Mitchell ’08, a social work major who tutors twin 15-year-old boys, said the biggest barrier she’s come up against is teaching reading comprehension.

“The biggest obstacle has been that they’re given chapter books, but they don’t comprehend what they’re reading,” Mitchell said. “They were forced into this age group, but they are not equipped for high school.”

Other tutors echoed her frustration. Audrey Knutson ’07, a political science and global studies major, said 10-year-old Marimaua Muya can verbally comprehend what is said but has difficulty understanding what she reads.

The Bantu children are still trying to adjust to life in the United States. During one tutoring session, Knutson asked Muya to locate Tacoma on a map of the United States posted in a corner of the classroom. Standing on a chair, Muya’s focus was on the Midwest. She needed prodding from Knutson to find Washington state and Tacoma.

The children have all been in the U.S. for various stretches of time, from less than a year to more than three years. Some were originally resettled in Tacoma, while others were invited to move by Bantu families already in Tacoma. Those families came from Texas, Utah and even New York as part of a “second migration,” Fisher said.

Despite the tutoring obstacles, the experience has been extremely rewarding, Baumer said. The younger children are adorable and fun to play with, while talking with the older children can be enlightening. The Bantu are Muslim, and she and Jatar often talked about his religion, she said.

“I can honestly say I love going here. It just makes my week,” Baumer said.

The students are eager to learn, and that makes the tutoring time much more enjoyable, Greenaway added. 

“All of these kids just really want to learn,” Greenaway said. “Their spirit is amazing and inspiring for people from PLU who think our lives are tough, but in comparison, they’re really not.”

Jamila Haji, 13, has been in the United States for two years, and is still working on her reading and writing skills. But the teen is quickly adapting to the options her new country presents for her future.

When asked what she wants to be when she grows up, Haji rattled off a “top four” list of career options that doesn’t sound much different from the aspirations of a native-born teenager: doctor, lawyer, singer, teacher. When asked which was best, she said, “The best choice is being a teacher. I like the little kids and could help them learn stuff.”

St. Mark’s plans to reapply for the grant to continue the tutoring program and expand it in the future to work more directly with the Bantu parents, Summerour said. For the Bantu children to succeed in school, the parents need to be more actively involved and understand what is expected of their children.

The PLU students have had a huge impact on the Bantu children. At the end of one tutoring session, a few of the middle school and high school students expressed their desire to attend college. Summerour said he associates that desire directly to the influence the tutors have had on the children.

“The tutors have had such a huge impact on these kids,” Summerour said. “They helped them build confidence with their schoolwork, but they also act as great examples and mentors.”

First-grader Halima Mberwa carefully sounds out the words in a picture book under the watchful eye of her tutor, Kristi Greenaway ’08. According to the tutors, most of the children struggled to comprehend what they read.

Using flashcards, tutor Chris deVries ’07 works with two of the Somali Bantu children to practice their colors. Tacoma Community House donated space and learning materials to help make the tutoring program a success.

Tutor Audrey Knutson ’07 helps 10-year-old Marimaua Muya find Tacoma on a map of the United States. Knutson said it was often a challenge to keep Muya focused on the task at hand.