We are headed Back to School…online

Back to School Appeal update (9.3.20): Big thank you to everyone who gave to ReWA’s Back to School appeal last week. Thanks to your support and generosity we raised over $2k for tech purchases and received numerous items from the WishList including laptops, headphones and webcams so students from immigrant and refugee families can stay connected to learning this year. Thank you!

It’s official: Back to School in 2020 will be like no other.

Students and their families are preparing for the school year, whether they will meet online, or perhaps with limited classroom instruction—or a hybrid of the two. While school districts have issued laptops to most students, many still share devices with multiple siblings, and wifi connectivity cost is still an issue. Some families manage this cost by sharing a wifi connection with neighbors, but the slow internet speeds remain a barrier to online learning.

Also, for youth in ReWA’s Post-Secondary Success Program on their way to college, what should be a summer of excitement has been rife with uncertainty. Many recent high school graduates scrambled to find summer work to support their families when their parents lost their jobs. And with family budgets tight, there is no money for laptops to replace school district-issued devices that students returned upon graduation. For some recent grads in immigrant and refugee-headed households, their dreams of higher education may be put on hold.

These are major challenges. But you can help:

With your help we can keep students connected during the coming school year.

Thank you!

Youth tackle teen homelessness

cartoon drawing of "Juan" who is homeless and sleeps in a car with his family
Youth used storyboards to facilitate online discussions and brainstorm solutions to teen homelessness.

Back in February when we had no idea what was in store for us.

In partnership with the Seattle Reparatory Theatre (the Rep), ReWA’s Project-Based Learning (PBL) program was set to focus on storytelling and public speaking – skills particularly helpful for English Language Learners. Little did we know how meaningful these skills would be as youth faced a global pandemic and were affected by the Black Lives Matter movement.  

The goal of ReWA’s Project-Based Learning program is to engage students and inspire learners with hands-on, real-life learning to promote leadership. At our first session with the Seattle Rep actors in February, they led the class in team-building and voice-projection exercises, and the youth created a values-based outline for how class time would be governed, with their priorities being “punctuality, honestly and fun”.

ReWA’s youth instructors presented a complementary storytelling curriculum in which students chose a significant social issue —Teen Homelessness—and explored it using the skills they learned from the Rep actors. Youth learned to work on their own voice cultivation, that is, having the courage to use their voice, and they also learned how to take constructive criticism from peers. They learned problem-solving, critical thinking, writing, and presentation skills—all 21st Century Skills that are priority for Seattle Public Schools. 

screenshot of storyboard of covid-19 affects youth homelessness
Youth engaged with their peers and instructors weekly over video calls.

Youth worked on ‘voice cultivation’, that is, having the courage to use their voice, and they also learned how to take constructive criticism from peers.

Then, March came and Seattle Public Schools – and PBL – moved to online instruction. Homeschooling was not only a massive shock to parents’ but also to students’ academic and social life. In the face of these challenges, ReWA’s youth instructors made weekly group and individuals check-ins. This was not just to check in on program work, but also to see how families were coping with the pandemic and to provide resources, as needed. 

As part of these check-ins, we’d use journaling prompts and the ice-breaker exercise, “Roses, Buds and Thorns” as a way to share ups and downs of their week, and come up with innovative ideas to meet future challenges.

In May, youth attended an online storytelling workshop offered by Nike. They learned how to craft their own personal stories, identified personal values, and honed a pitch statement for when they apply for internships. For many, this was the first time they spoke about their own journey, and how they have learned and grown from adversity.

For many, this was the first time they spoke about their own journey, and how they have learned and grown from adversity.

Looking back to when we started the online training in public speaking, I remember many of the youth were camera-shy. By the end of the program, they spoke with confidence, looking directly at the camera, and had their pitches polished—and under a minute.

Moving class online caused us to streamline our curriculum by using storyboards to brainstorm solutions to the issue of Teen Homelessness. Storyboarding helped foster conversation in which teens were asked to consider others’ perspectives, an important part of their social-emotional learning.

As part of the final project, the youth filmed their own “oral commentaries” on teen homelessness, offering several creative solutions, such as:

  • vouchers for tiny homes where families can stay temporarily
  • community garden for families to access
  • resource pamphlets for homeless teens

By preparing and performing these ‘oral commentaries’, youth had a chance to practice public speaking, voice opinions and back them up with evidence.  

Although many youth still have substantial disparities in their remote learning environments – because of limited access to computers and/or wifi – the goal of the PBL program was to make our online meetings and activities engaging, educational, and fun. Looking back, although this cohort was catapulted into distance learning, we were consistently blessed by one student’s hopeful disposition each week as he relayed this simple, impactful sentiment, “I am thankful for waking up today.”

Looking back, although this cohort was catapulted into distance learning, we were consistently blessed by one student’s hopeful disposition each week as he relayed this simple, impactful sentiment, “I am thankful for waking up today.”

PBL is following that same guiding light of gratefulness. Despite a worldwide pandemic accompanied by civil unrest for racial justice, our class stays hopeful. As our students, community, and the country push forward, we make it a point to remember to be grateful for each day, stay positive, show up and understand what it means to be mindful of our neighbor. 

*Homelessness statistics from Schoolhouse Washington report

Covid Response: Feeding Families

Over the weekend, as Seattle area residents prepared for social distancing and remote schooling ReWA’s Elementary Program Coordinator, Rachel Ewen, sprang into action. She posted a request to Instagram and raised $260 from friends and family to create care packages for ReWA’s elementary program families. She and her friends filled bags with non-perishable food items, toiletries, first aid kits, school supplies, books, school work, games, etc. They were jam packed! Hopefully they will provide some help and comfort to our students and their parents during these stressful times.

Many ReWA families have single parents and many siblings, so school closures have a big impact on their food budget.

“I knew that a lot of our families are large families headed by single parents, some of whom operate child care centers, so I knew they would need a lot of help during this time. So when we delivered the supplies, I also told them about the free lunches at nearby schools,” she said. 

Rachel added, “Most of their parents don’t speak English, so it’s hard for them to support their kids academically. We created workbooks for them that include mazes, mad libs, and gave them pencil and crayons, for activities to do away from screens. Our case managers will also be checking in during the break with parents and kids. Its hard because our go-to is to get out into the community, so we have to be creative in giving kids an outlet.” 

Thank you for your good work, Rachel and Friends! 

Donate to support ReWA during the Covid-19 crisis. 





Youth Program Coordinator collected donations to give to ReWA’s families in the youth program

Franklin graduate heads to bright future

One of Franklin’s Youngest Graduates Heads On to a Bright Future

By Annie Nguyen

Abdiweli knows what hope and dedication means. Talking to the calm and composed 16-year-old, it’s unlikely you could guess what he’s overcome or how quickly he’s already made Seattle home.

Abdiweli, one of Franklin High School’s youngest graduates this past June, spent more than a year hoping for his chance to come to America. Growing up without parents, Abdiweli was raised by an aunt and older brother who were forced to leave him with a neighbor in Kenya when they left for America. He was only 12 years old.

While Abdiweli knew his aunt and brother would help him come to America when they could, he also knew that it could be years – if ever – before that happened. In preparing for the possibility that that day wouldn’t come, Abdiweli committed to his studies and soccer practices. In his home country of Kenya, becoming an English translator or a soccer star were two of the only options he knew to make a living. In the 19 months he lived without family, Abdiweli never skipped a day of class or of soccer practice. Sometimes this meant overcoming significant obstacles. The kindly neighbor, who had agreed to watch over him, had a family of her own to care for first. If there wasn’t enough food on any day, Abdiweli simply wouldn’t eat.

Abdiweli’s commitment to soccer included earning a spot to the East Africa Youth Cup semi-finals and captaining at Franklin High.

Still, alone at 12, Abdiweli learned to keep fighting to be a better student and soccer player. “When you grow up without parents,” he said, “You have to look after yourself.” His dedication resulted in him serving as captain of his youth league and earning a spot as midfielder for the regional team.

All of this changed, however, when Abdiweli finally received word that he was going to America to join his aunt and brother.

The news was bittersweet, as Abdiweli’s soccer team had just qualified for the East African Youth Cup semi-finals, and the day of the game was the day after his scheduled flight to America. He got on the plane, knowing he had to give up what he had worked so hard for up to that point.

A year and half after being left behind, Abdiweli came to the United States and enrolled at Franklin High. At his brother’s encouragement, he became involved in the Refugee Women’s Alliance’s Youth Job Readiness Training program (YJRT).  Abdiweli’s brother had been in YJRT and told him that the program would help him adjust to life in America.

While in YJRT, Abdiweli learned to become a leader and a role model.  Now in his second year of YJRT, he has helped organize 18 other youth together to generate ideas for projects, and he has gained more confidence because of the trust and responsibility that ReWA teachers give him. His favorite part of the program is what he and his team are working on now, a project that gives him a platform to speak publicly about issues he cares about.

ReWA has been impressed by Abdiweli’s remarkable calmness and maturity. In addition to participating in our programs, Abdiweli also volunteers in ReWA’s Elementary Program, where he is teaching children from Somali-speaking families how to read and write in their home language through Somalia’s rich culture of poetry.

ReWA, Abdiweli says, is a helpful community for immigrants and provides a welcoming space that feels representative of the larger community. 

“The program’s like a family to you,” Abdiweli said, smiling.

These are important aspects for a teenager adjusting to a new, foreign environment.  Abdiweli jokes that in his home country, you didn’t know who lived where because neighbors would stay in each other’s houses until bedtime. The easy friendliness is what Abdiweli misses most about Kenya. Abdiweli feels that many of the people he’s encountered here spend their time inside their homes, and his interactions have felt limited to a more surface-level.

However, through YJRT, Abdiweli says he’s found a community while also getting to learn how to apply for jobs and how to advocate for himself. In fact, it was this self-advocacy, as well as the advocacy of his teachers, that enabled Abdiweli to graduate early. After multiple conversations and tests that he completed in a fraction of the time allotted, his counselors and teachers agreed that he was ready to graduate.

Abdiweli is also a participant in ReWA’s Post-Secondary Success Program (PSSP). With the help of PSSP case managers, Abdiweli applied for numerous scholarships and registered to start classes at Seattle Central College this fall, with funding from the Lotus Scholarship, the Wayne and Jean Tice Scholarship, and the Winners for Life Scholarship. He plans to pursue programs in either Civil Engineering or Law. As it turns out, he not only has a knack for languages, but he also enjoys Math and has been advised that he might have more job opportunities if he pursues Civil Engineering.

Still, he is only 16, and he knows that many things can change in the future. He also recognizes there are diverse career opportunities here in America, opportunities that he feels would have been few and far between in Africa. It’s that hopefulness that makes him excited about his next step in life. 

“Once one door closes, another opens here,” Abdiweli says. “So it doesn’t matter the path I take. There is always so much more ahead of me.”

Hawa and Halima: Resilience in Action

Only a few hours before their flight was scheduled for take-off, six-year-old Halima came down with food poisoning. Her mother Hawa felt hot tears spring to her eyes, the strain of the moment almost too much to bear. Hawa had spent the last 20 years in Ethiopia, behind the walls of a refugee camp. Now she was making this journey without her husband, traveling for the first time on a plane, bringing her six children to their new home in America. With her youngest daughter suddenly very sick, Hawa didn’t know how she could possibly manage the trip with only a limited grasp of English.

I met Hawa six years after that momentous day. Not a trace of the anxiety she felt during that plane ride was evident as we spoke. Instead, her ready smile and outgoing personality immediately charmed me. Once her U.S. Citizenship class ended for the day, she invited me home to meet her family. Later, Halima, now 13 years old, helped interpret as we talked about the more complicated aspects of their family’s history.

Halima was as endearing as her mother. “I lo-ove to read! I spend half my day, no, three-fourths of my day reading, when I’m not in school, I mean,” she told me. “Yeah and I like to play soccer and basketball… I’m more of a tom-boy. It’s track season now, so that’s what I do right after school.”

Halima sounded and acted as All-American as these words suggest. It was what she said next that set her apart from the other girls on her team. “I’m the only Somali Muslim there.” Since Halima wears the Hijab, the fact that she’s Muslim is apparent to anyone who sees her.

Yes, Somali All-American. And thanks to Halima’s poise, wit, intellect, and wisdom-far-beyond-her-years, I had the privilege of learning the details of their family’s stories from her first hand.

Halima’s mother was born in a town close to Mogadishu, Somalia. Orphaned at a very young age and an only child, Hawa was raised by her grandmother, yet she looks back happily on those years. Her grandmother doted on her and gave her a comfortable, pleasant life. Like the other girls in Somalia during that period, she did not receive a formal education. Her schooling consisted of learning domestic chores: cooking, cleaning, gardening.

In 1991, her life changed dramatically. Hawa turned 18 that year and was soon married. Shortly after, civil war broke out in Somalia when clan-based opposition groups overthrew the Siad Barre regime in power. Hawa’s husband worried he wouldn’t be able to keep his young wife safe. Before the fighting could reach their home, they fled across the border into Ethiopia. While Hawa recalls the people she met in Ethiopia as peaceful and welcoming, the entire time she lived there, she was not allowed to leave the refugee camp where she and her husband were placed.

They got by, making new friends and finding a purpose for themselves within the camp structure. They were grateful to the International Rescue Committee (IRC) workers who ran the camp. Hawa received her first formal schooling there, eventually acquiring what she describes as a 5th grade education, including learning Arabic and some English. She also received job training, learned to sew, and eventually, landed a job making children’s school uniforms. Over the span of twelve years, Hawa gave birth to six children in their new “home.” Throughout, she continued to work. In the communal system of the camp, some women had the job of providing child care for all of the young children, allowing other parents to take different jobs. Hawa kept making uniforms.

Soon after their sixth child was born, Hawa’s husband was offered the chance to leave the camp and work in Addis Ababa, where he would be able to earn money and send it back to his family. Hawa and the children were not allowed to leave, but she and her husband agreed he should take the opportunity. They looked at it as a way to provide more hope for their children, even if their future remained within the camp’s walls. At the time, they didn’t believe the whole family would receive permission to permanently resettle elsewhere.

For five more years, the family lived in a state of limbo, separated and with little hope for change, until finally Hawa heard the news she had dreamed of: she and her children received permission from the U.S. government to resettle in America. Still, there were two heart-wrenching twists to this good news. One, because her husband had left the camp, he was not allowed to accompany them. The IRC workers assured Hawa, once she was in the U.S., she would be able to petition the government to allow her husband to join them.

The second twist: if her husband wanted to take this chance, he would have to give up his job in Addis Ababa and return to life behind the camp walls. His potential to earn money for his family would plummet.

Six-year-old Halima’s most vivid memory of life in the camp was the day her father returned to its confines. She was outside playing with friends when she looked up and saw a strange man standing before her. He had to introduce himself as the father who had left when she was just a baby. It shocked Halima that she didn’t recognize her own father. And only too soon after their reunion, the family had to leave him behind again as they set out on their journey to America.

Six years ago, despite Halima’s food-poisoning, and the motion-sickness one of her sisters experienced during the flights, the family landed safely at Sea-Tac airport in Seattle, the entry into their new country. Resettlement aid-workers brought them to an apartment where they were allowed to stay for nine months. Afterwards, Hawa was forced to move with her children into a shelter until she found a job. When she secured a position at a child care center on Queen Anne Hill, she qualified for a lease on an apartment. Eventually, the family ended up at an apartment that happened to be very close to the Refugee Women’s Alliance, also known as ReWA.

Their proximity to the agency was fortuitous for the family. There, Hawa received case management services, and took English-as-a-Second-Language and U.S. Citizenship classes, all while still employed at the Queen Anne child care center. While living there, Hawa’s petition to the government was approved and her husband was allowed to join them in America. They had been separated—by oceans this time—for three years. He now studies English at ReWA, as well.

Halima and her older sister enrolled in ReWA’s Youth Program, where they received regular homework help and advice about how to succeed in school. They participated in activities that helped strengthen their social skills and introduced them to kids their age from different cultures. The diverse group of refugee and immigrant students included others from Somalia, as well as students from Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Vietnam. Halima shared one of her favorite memories with me:

“Five of us volunteered at the food bank. It was our group teacher, a boy, two other girls and me. The boy was my closest friend at the time. We all laughed a lot and it felt good to help other people.”

Halima also told me about difficult situations she’s had to face in this country.

“I would get bullied a lot when I was little. One, because the water we used to drink in Ethiopia turned our teeth yellow. It damaged mine a lot… the dentist said I can’t do anything about it until I’m 18. Kids would always bully me because of that.

“And when I was in first grade and it was time to wash our hands, this one kid would always put soap in my eyes.

“Another time, this girl tripped me and I hit my ear on a chair. It was bleeding all over.

“And kids still always ask why I cover my hair. Sometimes, kids will even pull off my scarf.

“I’m fed up with it. Now when I see someone else getting bullied, I get really annoyed and do something to help.”

Halima says it was adults like her mother and the ReWA Youth Program facilitator who helped her learn to navigate some of these incidents. “The only reason we don’t go to ReWA anymore is we had to move and now, it’s too far away for my sister and me.”

The family now lives in Renton, so Hawa enrolled herself in the Saturday morning Citizenship class. It was a convenient time for her, that didn’t interfere with her weekday job at the child care center. Plus the traffic was light as she drove north to the ReWA main office building.

The subject of driving itself warrants special attention. Imagine the unique challenges posed by learning to drive as a mature adult and parent of six children, some of whom were already old enough to drive themselves. Yet that is Hawa’s story. Now she gets around town confidently in her minivan.

Halima’s assessment of her mother’s life brought unexpected tears to my eyes. “When I hear about it, it’s really inspiring. It makes me want to do a lot of things for her when I grow up. She went through a lot of hardships. Just the other day, my stomach was hurting. It was late at night, but she said she’d get me anything I needed. It was raining hard, but she drove to the store to get me some food. She said it would make me feel better. She’d do anything for me.”

Halima’s personal story will be—in fact, already is—as much an American success story as the life her resilient mother has made for herself and for her family in this country. Hawa’s list of accomplishments is long. One of her grown children attends college, another has a good job at the airport. Halima plans to attend college and become a psychologist. Her closest sister also intends to go to college. I have children Halima’s age, and spend time with their friends, but I have never heard any other child her age speak of their parent with as much respect and clarity as Halima spoke of Hawa that day.

Now, their family has wonderful news to share. On May 1, 2017, Hawa passed her U.S. Citizenship exam. The fact that she is an American citizen now means that Halima—and her brother and sister closest in age—will become citizens as well. The doors to countless opportunities have just been thrown wide open for Hawa, Halima, and their whole family.

Hawa and Halima are not the real names of the subjects of this story, however, all of the details of their lives described here are true. While Hawa no longer lives near ReWA, she continues to work with an agency case manager, and hopes to enroll in ReWA’s Childcare Work Training program this summer. She remains employed at a Queen Anne child care center, but knows that receiving child care certification through the program at ReWA would allow her to qualify for promotions within her field.

The author, Ramlah Ringold Olt, is the Capital Campaign Director at the Refugee Women’s Alliance, ReWA.