Refugees, mentors join hearts, minds
It started simply enough Danielle Alcala wanted to help a friend tutor a few refugee children from Somalia.
Seven years later, Danielle and her husband, Danjuma Alcala, are tutoring 75 Somali and Bantu youths between the ages of 3 and 18. The Somalis, Arabs who lived along the coast of the Arabian Sea, are a distinct group from the Bantus, who immigrated to Somalia from sub-Saharan Africa.
The Alcalas' program, Because He First Loved Us, also provides basketball for the boys and tennis for the girls. And there are summer outings including Lagoon Day for the kids who make passing grades in school. Not least, every Christmas the Alcalas give each student a new set of clothes and shoes along with one "fun" gift.
It's all accomplished without government aid. Their program depends on individual donations and volunteers.
"They come here and we help them with their homework and we tutor them in reading, comprehension and math," Danielle said. "For most of them, their parents had no education in Somalia, so they can't help them it's not that they don't want to."
Beyond that, the Alcalas reach out to the parents of their students to provide whatever help they can including tutoring. It's as if they have adopted the entire community of refugees who fled the war-torn country on the horn of Africa and eventually landed in Salt Lake County.
Most of them first lived at the same apartment complex but were later dispersed, Danielle explained. The Tuesday evening tutoring program is a place for learning as well as for socializing.
"It was very hard for them [when the families moved apart], because they are a community. This is the only place they all get together," she said. "That's one of the things we wanted to do with this program."
There are, of course, challenges. Transportation is one of them. The Alcalas depend on their all-volunteer staff to pick up the students from home, deliver them to the nondenominational Discovery Christian Community Church in Murray by 6:30 p.m. and then return them home after the two-hour study and tutor session .
But for the Somali refugee community parents and children it's more than worthwhile, and they have embraced the program and its mentors.
"We have earned their trust and have been adopted into their community," Danielle said. "They view us something like an aunt and an uncle."
Twelve-year-old Isha Suber, who is in seventh grade and lives in Rose Park, said she likes to come every Tuesday "to learn how to do my homework and to hang out with my friends."
She has four sisters and five brothers and said her favorite subjects are history and math.
Mako Bere, also 12, is in sixth grade and is the oldest of six children. "It's fun and it's work," she said of the gathering. "The tutors help us with our homework and stuff we don't get, like math."
But academics aren't the only hurdle the refugee kids face. Danielle, who works for a Salt Lake City law firm, and Danjuma, who is affiliated with the 3rd District Juvenile Court, emphasize responsible behavior, particularly for the boys.
In a new country, parents often lose clout with their children because social norms are different and the kids pick up the language more quickly, Danjuma explained. Young men become independent quickly and sometimes without parental guidance. That can lead them into gangs and other trouble.
The girls face different challenges, he noted. While the boys dress like their peers in school, the girls wear traditional Muslim dress, including head coverings. It can be more difficult for them to assimilate at their schools because they look so different, Danjuma said.
The Alcalas, along with the volunteer tutors, provide role models and support for their young charges on their way to becoming Americans.
Ze Min Xiao, Refugee Services liaison for Salt Lake County, said the Alcalas make a big contribution to the lives of the kids they tutor.
"One of the exciting things about Danielle and Danjuma is they are doing this out of the goodness of their hearts," she said. "There isn't any government funding and they do this without pay. They really need all the help they can get," she said, referring to donations and volunteers.
Beyond teaching reading and math, Xiao said they also guide the youngsters through the challenges adolescents face in a new culture.
"The kids have so many struggles themselves, but they also have to help their parents," she said. "They are trying to fit into a new school system what is hip and not hip and trying to maintain their own culture."
It's hard work for the students, their parents, the volunteers and the Alcalas. But for Danielle and Danjuma, the goal is to get the kids to graduate from high school and then perhaps attain some advanced education or training. That, Danjuma said, will open up a whole world of new possibilities for them.
Somali tutoring fundraiser
P Dec. 7 at 7 p.m., Trolley Square, building P labout 600 South and 600 East.
Donations also can be made at http://www.bhflu.org.