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Refugee youths thrive in multicultural environment in Rockwood apartment complex

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Sarai, 8, plays on a tree swing in her backyard at Barberry Village. It’s 90 degrees outside and 12-year-old Abdul Abdulqader jumps into the cool water of the Barberry Village apartment complex pool. Before his toes even touch the water, Abdul is swarmed by his African and Middle Eastern friends, who yelp and holler in Swahili, Arabic and broken English as they chase each other into the pool.

A handful of Burmese, American and Mexican adults and children watch from the deck, as the group of nine boys learn how to play tag — a pleasantly normal, summer activity for the teens, some of whom were living in refugee camps in Mozambique just a few days prior.

During the summer, children and teenagers at Barberry Village often are the most-seen tenants at the complex, which houses many refugee and immigrant families.

While their parents are at work or running errands, kids play soccer, Monopoly and pool games to pass the time. The refugee and immigrant children don’t always speak the same language, but they learn to communicate through hand signals and the few words they share in common.

However, many learn English quickly and by a young age often serve as liaisons between their parents and the wider community.

“Kids acculturate and learn English at a quicker rate,” said Megan Wilson, coordinator of the Family Engagement and Empowerment Program at Immigrant Refugee and Community Organization (IRCO). “So they have to do adult type things and are exposed to situations that kids are normally kept away from.”

Not only do the children have additional responsibilities, but they frequently arrive traumatized from having lived in a war-torn country. Some cover their ears at sounds resembling gun shots, but others talk about death without a flinch.

To support children and families in adjusting to their new homes, IRCO and other nonprofit organizations provide a variety of educational and therapeutic activities.

The Refugee Immigrant Family Empowerment Program (RIFE) is the only one in the state that works with families to reduce conflict stemming from cultural issues that arise as children or spouses adapt to American culture, said Crystal Ashton, program manager. It also offers specialty programs for people facing challenges that may be more unique, such as sign language classes for someone who is deaf.

RIFE also focuses on promoting societal integration and healthy relationships through summer camps, tutoring, field trips, disability services and language classes.

“Many families received almost zero education in refugee camps,” Wilson said. “That’s the primary thing they want.”

Clarence Thompson, a volunteer for IRCO, leads math classes for children at the apartment complex every week.

“The thing about living in an apartment complex with immigrant parents is there’s not a lot to do during the day,” Thompson said. “They’re happy to have adult attention.”

For 90 minutes, Thompson teaches the children how to add, subtract, multiply and divide, and they happily follow along.

Thompson said he is frustrated with the public school system and the traditionally low test scores among minorities.

“Immigrants from developing countries, because of the stratification of the system, come with poor math skills,” Thompson said. “But I think we can help correct ethnic inequities present in the public school system.”

Thompson also said bringing the children together allows for the building of cross-cultural understanding and communication skills.

“One strength of the complex is that it’s multicultural and multiethnic, and they have built a resilient community who know how to work with different types of people,” Thompson said. “There are psychological and sociological possibilities you don’t see in a suburb.”

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Shaehlerpaw Shee, left, and his brother Hsartawshee Shee share a bicycle as they ride around the Barberry Village apartment complex.Daniel and Jennifer Johnson live in the complex with their three children and also coordinate recreational activities.

The Johnsons arrived at Barberry Village in 2009 as members of Compassion Connect, a Christian organization that serves low-income apartment complexes.

Throughout the past five years, 11 members have lived or worked in the apartments, but the Johnsons and another couple are the only ones who remain.

“A lot of what we do is hanging, loving and mentoring these kids,” Daniel said. “But the ministry started up by orchestrating meals every week.”

Daniel said they also facilitate homework help sessions, vacation Bible school and camping trips.

Recently, Daniel started teaching some of the children to swim because many don’t know how, but want to play in the pool. He said a few years ago a little girl drowned because she entered unattended and couldn’t stay afloat.

“There are some big cultural differences here,” Daniel said. “A lot of people have a sense of community where people look out for each other.”

This means kids spend the day outside by themselves playing with whatever and whomever they find. Some ride bikes around the parking lot, dodging women carrying laundry on their heads, while others sit and play cards on the grass. Despite their freedom to roam, the kids are rarely out of earshot of a parent or designated babysitter.

Kids say they love hanging out at Barberry Village, so much they come back for regular visits after moving out with their families.

One of these returning kids is Brian Helen, 13. He and his family came to the U.S. from Zambia three years ago and lived at Barberry Village for about two years. They originally came from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but moved to Zambia when Brian was very young.

“I was happy to move here,” Brian said. “Too many people died.”

The Congo, formerly Zaire, has suffered from ethnic and political wars for the past 17 years, resulting in a death toll estimated in 2010 by the International Rescue Committee to be between 900,000 and 5.4 million people.

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - From left to right, Manahel, 6, Abdul, 12, Brian, 13, Yassir, 8, and Yuhmarvi, 3, are best friends and familiar faces at Barberry Village.But, to Brian, Zambia wasn’t much better. He said he lived in a big house in the Congo, with refrigerators and modern conveniences, but in Zambia he and his family had to walk long distances to cook and gather water. More than 60 percent of Zambians live in poverty, according to the World Bank, an international financial institution that provides loans to developing countries for capital programs.

“It was hard to live there,” Brian said. “Once, when I was sleeping, somebody choked me.”

When Brian and his family left the refugee camps in Zambia for the U.S., he only spoke what little English he had learned while watching “The Three Stooges.” Unable to communicate, he didn’t have any friends, but soon picked up on the language and befriended his classmates and neighbors. Now, he is an avid soccer player, enjoys playing cops and robbers and loves his English and math classes at Reynolds Middle School.

Brian is known as the “jokester” among his friends and looks out for his younger brothers and sister during the day. He entered eighth grade this year and said, “I’m happy here.”

Brian’s best friend, Abdul Abdulqader, 12, also lives at Barberry Village. Originally from Iraq, Abdul spent most of his life in Syria. He has fond memories of the country, but said, “I wasn’t there when it was dangerous.”

On Wednesday, Aug. 21, Syria suffered an alleged chemical weapons attack that killed up to 1,400 civilians — one of the many recent violent outbreaks stemming from the nation’s two-year-long civil war.

“I came here and everything changed for me,” Abdul said.

He now spends his time playing soccer, watching Jackie Chan movies or playing games on the family’s laptop.

He said he likes living at Barberry Village because “it’s fun to play with different people from different countries.”

And most kids at Barberry Village agree.

Because, when given a soccer ball or a deck of cards, regardless of the language they speak or the color of their skin, children play. And for kids like Brian and Abdul, who are thousands of miles from their war-torn homelands, that holds true no matter where you are.

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