Refugee and immigrant program struggles to find mentors

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Abdul Sheikh, a junior at Madison High School and a refugee from Somalia, hugs Immigrant & Refugee Community Organization Youth Program coordinator Abinnet Haile. Tommy Rodrigues, right, is Sheikh's mentor but the Refugee/Immigrant Mentoring program is sorely in need of more male mentors. Each year, more than 33,000 migrants come through the Immigrant & Refugee Community Organization, having resettled in the Portland area.

Of those, several thousand are children who have parents trying to navigate a strange land with a strange language.

Abu Bakar Sheikh and Abdul Sheikh were two of those children. Abu Bakar was 13 and Abdul was 10 when they arrived here with their parents and four other siblings from a refugee camp in Somalia.

Now 20 and 17, the brothers are integrating well at school and haven’t gotten mixed up with gangs. They credit the RIM (Refugee/Immigrant Mentoring) program and their longtime mentor Tommy Rodrigues for keeping them on track.

“It really helped me a lot. It really helped all the way to my high school year, and still they are still helping me,” Abu Bakar says. “He’s like our family right now, everybody know him.”

But the program’s coordinator, Abinnet Haile at IRCO’s Africa House, says she has a problem. Haile has many more children signed up for the program than there are mentors, particularly male mentors.

“I wish we could do more to support these kids because the need is huge,” Haile says.

Rodrigues, who is a data analyst at Bonneville Power Administration, says he has learned a lot about Islam, Somali culture, the diversity of Portland, and what it means to be a first-generation American.

But mostly, he says, the program has made his Saturdays matter.

“This was a way from me to actually do something that was a little more enriching,” he says. TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Brothers Abu Bakar, left, and Abdul Sheikh, with IRCO mentor Tommy Rodrigues in the computer center of the Africa House.

Rodrigues started mentoring Abu Bakar when the program started in 2009. The older brother is now studying to be a mechanical engineer at Portland Community College and has aged out of the program. So, Rodrigues switched to younger brother Abdul, a junior at Madison High School.

A mentoring session mostly consists of just hanging out — catching up on homework, shooting hoops or running errands. Mentors commit to at least one year of 10 hours a month with a child between grades 7 and 12.

Haile says that the connection to a member of the mainstream culture is critical for the long-term success of these newest Americans.

“It would have been very different if they hadn’t had their mentor,” Haile says of the Sheikh brothers. She sees many children, especially those from African communities, who get caught up in gangs or drugs without that tie.

“Especially the African kids, the number of gang involvement is rising right now,” she says. “When language is different, they would want to latch on to someone, something. This program, I can tell you, has saved so many kids.”

The program counts 51 mentors, but Haile says she could use another 40 or more to get through the 100-plus kids on her wait list.

The program is funded in large part by a more than $600,000 three-year grant through the Portland Children’s Levy. Haile says the money goes to staff, transportation, food at monthly activities, and little incidentals like tickets to a special event or a gift card to say thanks to a mentor.

For mentor Rodrigues, he says the program actually might be giving him more than he has given it.

“I don’t know if it’s changed their lives; it’s changed mine for sure,” he says. “I think if you want to do any good in the world, just have a healthy relationship with somebody.”

Mentors needed

What: RIM: Refugee/Immigrant Mentoring

Who: 92 children, many from single-parent households

Where: From all over the world: Somalia, Congo, Ethiopia, Sudan, Burma, Nepal, as well as Eastern Europe and Central and Latin America

Why: Gives youth a lifeline out of the influence of gangs and drugs

The problem: Too few mentors, particularly men, have signed up.

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Shasta Kearns Moore
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