Whenever Konah Johnson went to work earlier this fall, her children’s attempts at virtual learning from home in West Des Moines fell apart.
The three eldest of her five children, ages 14, 12 and 9, were enrolled in advanced coursework. But they struggled with insufficient internet, turned in homework late and fell victim to distractions — so much so, Johnson says, that her 14-year-old daughter essentially gave up.
Johnson, a 30-year-old single mother and refugee from Liberia, felt she couldn’t let her children fall any further behind or they would risk growing up with the same hardships she’s faced all her life.
So this month she quit her job — and began a new one at Genesis Youth Foundation, one of several programs across the Des Moines metro that are trying to help children from refugee and immigrant families including her own as they navigate virtual and in-person instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s been tough, but I figure it’s been worth it,” Johnson said. “Quitting my job doesn’t hurt because I see the benefit of it now.”
The type of work Johnson is doing will become even more critical over the coming month, as Des Moines Public Schools begins its hybrid instruction model for students across the city. Elementary students will begin returning to classrooms Monday, followed by middle schoolers Oct. 26 and high schoolers Nov. 10.
Des Moines is the most diverse school district in the state: Its students come from 104 countries, and 1 in 5 — more than 7,000 — are classified as English language learners, meaning they are still learning basic English.
So nonprofits and churches that already work with refugee and immigrant families have been trying to recruit more volunteers and raise additional money so they can offer much-needed tutoring, reliable broadband access and help with technology and homework.
“We need people who are interested, confident and brave enough to help us,” said Sam Gabriel, another former refugee from Liberia who with his wife runs Genesis Youth Foundation in Des Moines.
Parents often unable to help
In addition to the hardships of immigrating from war-torn counties and other traumatic situations, the families struggle because parents often are unable to be of much help as their kids navigate both in-person and virtual learning.
Many are workers in essential occupations who aren’t at home when instruction is taking place. Others speak little or no English or spent years in refugee camps, where the quality of their own education was poor. Others, still, have lost jobs and are struggling just to keep the lights on and food on the table.
Remi Saidi, a 14-year-old from Urbandale, said he didn’t realize how much he needed help until an after-school soccer program lured him into the Genesis Youth program.
Saidi and his Congolese family immigrated to the U.S. four years ago from a refugee camp in Tanzania. Now he’s doing well in a hybrid school program, playing soccer and participating in Genesis’ leadership program so he can mentor others.
At home at the start of the school year with seven other siblings ages 3 to 16, he battled to stay engaged and keep up with online classes while his parents worked.
But at Genesis’ location in the former Franklin Junior High, he’s been able to concentrate on his schooling in a classroom setting, get tutoring and online help when he needs it, and be around other kids who have had the same kinds of struggles.
“The first thing people here talk about when they think of refugee camps is the lack of food and water,” he said. “But if you ask my parents why we came, it wasn’t because life (in the refugee camp) was super bad. It was because they wanted their kids to get a better education.”
Gabriel said immigrant and refugee children are placed in U.S. classrooms based on their age, not their ability, which puts them at an automatic disadvantage when they arrive. The pandemic, he said, has made barriers to education much, much worse.
His organization and others are trying to provide safe spaces with good internet, tutoring and assistance so students can catch up academically. The groups use after-school programming like sports, art or African dance to keep kids coming. Most provide daily meals and transportation so the children’s parents can work.
Johnson and another Genesis Youth Foundation employee plus a handful of volunteers at Franklin work primarily with children from African countries like Congo, Eritrea and Somalia or from refugee camps in Tanzania. Children from Ankeny to Des Moines, Saylor Township to Altoona, all attend their school districts’ virtual classes at Genesis, alternating days based on age groups.
The Genesis staffers and volunteers are at Franklin from 11 a.m.-3:30 p.m. five days a week, helping about 100 K-12 students.
Too many kids, too little help
Efforts are much the same at places like Highland Park Community Center, on Des Moines’ north side; Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church, on Beaver Avenue in Des Moines; and Shalom Covenant Church in Urbandale. But with too few volunteers and too little money, some programs have struggled to meet the high demand.
At Shalom Covenant, Pastor Eugene Kiruhura said the church upgraded its internet recently to help more K-12 students. But the church has had to temporarily scale back tutoring efforts from five days a week to two because there weren’t enough volunteers to work with all the children who showed up.
Shalom Covenant shares a building on Northwest Aurora Avenue with CityPoint Church and Urban Heights Covenant Church. Matt O’Mealey, a CityPoint congregation leader, left his job as a Mars Cafe barista this fall to help Kiruhura launch the tutoring program for primarily Congolese K-12 students in the Des Moines, Urbandale and Johnston school districts.
O’Mealey said he’s finding that people most available to volunteer are college and older high school students who may need volunteer credits for programs like National Honor Society or for their education degrees. He needs more.
“You can’t really help these kids en masse,” he said. “It takes a lot of time and hands-on work.”
Highland Park Community Church, at 4101 Amherst St. in Des Moines, provides help on site for students who attend the neighborhood’s Madison and Oak Park elementary schools and Harding Middle School, as well as education enrichment in the afternoon.
The Rev. Philip Herman, director of the program, said the group uses paid staff to run the online program for students participating in hybrid instruction in the morning at the church, then relies on volunteers in the afternoon.
“We can serve up to 45 kids a day. Some only need a couple days a week,” he said. “We started at end of August and plan to go at least through December.”
Herman said the program is going well, but even with regular breaks, students struggle to stay focused.
Needs shift as schools reopen
Des Moines was the only school district in Iowa to adopt a 100% online approach to classes this fall, defying a directive from Gov. Kim Reynolds that schools had to provide at least half their instruction in person.
The groups working with refugee children were among those who pushed the district toward its decision a month ago to reopen schools in a hybrid model.
Because the Des Moines district is beginning in-person instruction so late in the school year, several organizations are still developing programming and trying to anticipate what children and families will need.
Henny Ohr is co-founder of EMBARC — Ethnic Minorities of Burma Advocacy and Resource Center — a refugee-led Des Moines nonprofit that serves thousands of refugees from Burma across Iowa. Ohr said the organization is surveying families to identify IT needs and recruit tech navigators so they can help more families wherever they are.
Most Burmese parents, who came to the U.S. from refugee camps in Thailand, speak little or no English, so EMBARC has been providing crucial information during the pandemic through audio recorded in Burmese and other dialects. But the parents’ struggles aren’t the only reason the pandemic’s impact on their children has been profound, Ohr said.
“Technology issues — including the need for devices, knowledge about how to use them, and internet access — all contributed to a breakdown in learning. Less than 5% of families surveyed reported participating in online learning,” she said.
With many family members employed in the meatpacking industry, youths had to care for younger siblings while parents worked. Or children also had to care for parents who became ill with COVID-19.
Rough estimates suggest that as many as 70% of the agency’s clients tested positive for the coronavirus because of their ties to meatpacking plants, where tight working conditions resulted in some of the highest infection rates in the state.
“The refugee community was devastated, not only because of health care issues and difficulty in meeting basic needs like food and shelter, but because the social service system is inaccessible to the non-English speaking community,” Ohr said.
County supervisors provide aid
Boaz Nkingi, founder of the Iowa Congolese Organization and Center for Healing, or ICOACH, said the vast scope of the aid he’s trying to provide keeps him working from dawn until late into the evening.
Nkingi, who receives no salary from his nonprofit, works at Zion part-time and drives for Uber in addition to the countless hours he devotes to ICOACH. The program assists almost 90 students from the Des Moines, Urbandale, Johnston and Ankeny school districts.
With help from partners like United Way of Central Iowa and the Polk County supervisors, he’s able to offer programming at locations this fall in Johnston and Urbandale and at Zion in Des Moines.
He said that when he isn’t helping or transporting the kids, he’s taking calls from worried parents. “They all want their kids to get the education they deserve, but they don’t have the time to help,” he said.
This month, ICOACH got a much-needed boost: a shipment of phased-out, older computers donated by Polk County government to help the children, who receive tutoring and assistance each day from 10 a.m.-3 p.m.
In addition to distributing school lunches, Nkingi’s wife prepares African food like ugali, a maize-flour porridge served with meat, beans or cooked cassava leaves that the children are accustomed to eating at home. Some also participate in basketball on Saturdays or African dance classes.
ICOACH’s needs mirror those of the others groups: money and people who care enough to help.
“We are looking for people with some expertise: retired teachers, college students looking to build their resume or portfolio, those who can provide IT help,” said Nkingi, a Drake University graduate originally from Congo who lost several family members in a refugee camp.
Polk County Supervisor Bob Brownell said he’s become much more involved in trying to help refugee-led organizations around the metro because he’s been deeply impressed by families who are driven to become contributing members of Iowa’s economy, and he wants to make sure their children get a good education.
Brownell said he and other supervisors have provided grants to a mix of organizations because they know the children will make up Iowa’s workforce of tomorrow.
“They all are coming here for one thing. They believe in the American dream, and they want to be part of it,” he said. “When you’ve got a population like that, you can’t go wrong.”
Want to know more?
Check out Des Moines Public Schools’ Center for New Americans, a program at the former Smouse Opportunity School to support new immigrant and refugee families in the school district, including making connections with other agencies.
The district also provides Bilingual Family Liaisons as a link between the district and non-English speaking families. The liaisons help with virtual learning, in particular by making home visits and helping with hotspot and internet connections, or troubleshooting other technical issues.
Also serving central Iowa’s refugee population is the Refugee Alliance of Central Iowa, a network of service providers, government agencies, religious groups, nonprofit organizations, and educational institutions.
How to help
To find out how to help the organizations mentioned in this story, go to:
Matthew O’Mealey, who is recruiting volunteers for Shalom Covenant Church, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lee Rood’s Reader’s Watchdog column helps Iowans get answers and accountability from public officials, the justice system, businesses and nonprofits. Reach her at email@example.com, at 515-284-8549, on Twitter at @leerood or on Facebook at Facebook.com/readerswatchdog.
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