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Fellow African Refugees Seek Help From Iowa Couple

Parents say the tutoring helps their children learn subjects they cannot teach them.

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They live amid a recent U.S. political climate of suspicion toward immigrants or refugees and confusion over acclimating to America. VOA

Sam and Tricia Gabriel got off work on a dark January evening in Iowa. The temperature outside was -13 degrees Celsius (8 degrees Fahrenheit).

Instead of settling into their cozy suburban townhome with their children, ages 9 and 2, the Gabriels quickly returned to the roads, slick with ice. Tricia drove her car in one direction while Sam drove a 15-passenger van in another, and for the next 1½ hours they picked up 30 children of mostly African refugees from across the Des Moines, Iowa, metropolitan area.

The children, ages 4 to 14, were taken to a local elementary school, where they practiced schoolwork, soccer and dance. Two hours later, Sam and Tricia drove them all back home, returning to their townhome after 10 p.m.

They said they do this every weeknight to help the children adjust to America. They don’t consider it heroic. Not compared to what they endured.

“I see myself in them,” said Sam, 36.

Sam Gabriel founded Genesis Youth Foundation in Des Moines, Iowa, after he was helped as a child from war-torn Liberia. Photo taken Jan. 28, 2019.
Sam Gabriel founded Genesis Youth Foundation in Des Moines, Iowa, after he was helped as a child from war-torn Liberia. Photo taken Jan. 28, 2019. VOA

Childhood in Liberia

As a young boy, he walked all night through the Liberia countryside with his parents, afraid that rebels would kill them. One man was plucked from the crowd and shot before his eyes.

“It was the first time I saw a dead person,” he said. “If they took my father, I would have to pretend not to know him and keep walking.”

Meanwhile, Tricia and her family were of a tribe targeted by rebels and fled to a government military base.

Sam and Tricia’s lives unknowingly ran a parallel course.

Both had lived in Monrovia, Liberia, as young children while civil war raged. Both ended up in a refugee camp in Ivory Coast before coming to Des Moines. Both attended high schools there, until one day they met by accident in the most American of venues — Walmart.

Tricia said she could tell he was a Liberian, even in the crowded aisles of a huge superstore. They talked, fell in love and married in 2011. They had two children while finishing their education at Mercy College of Health Sciences in Des Moines.

But they say they didn’t escape death to settle for the comfort of the American dream. In 2014, the couple launched the Genesis Youth Foundation, a nonprofit that mentors refugee children, who often don’t have the money to participate in youth programs.

The Gabriels use donations or their own money for gas to travel, snacks or soccer uniforms for the children. It’s a tiring mission the couple performs every day, after Sam finishes his work as an Uber driver and Tricia as a nurse at a local retirement community.

But it fills a vital need, said Nicholas Wuertz, director of refugee services at Lutheran Services in Iowa, because “most of the federally funded resources for resettled refugees are for employable adults.”

Refugees in Iowa

Iowa, a mostly rural Midwestern state, is more than 1,600 kilometers from either of the heavily populated U.S. coasts. With a population of more than 3 million people, it ranks 30th among the 50 U.S. states. The state’s economy is rooted in agriculture and manufacturing, but also has diversified to include the insurance and financial industries.

In 2017, there were 18,782 Iowans who had been born in Africa, six times the number from 2000, according to the Migration Policy Institute. In fiscal 2018, 99 of the 110 refugee arrivals to Iowa were from African countries, according to the U.S. Department of State.

They live amid a recent U.S. political climate of suspicion toward immigrants or refugees and confusion over acclimating to America.

Just as the Gabriels said they once did, the children try to adjust to a new country while their parents work long hours.

Sam’s mom worked as hotel housekeeper, his father as a janitor. Sam said he tried to fit in, joining the soccer team in school. But his parents didn’t have the money for travel or uniforms, or even transportation to practices.

Tricia Gabriel, co-founder of Genesis Youth Foundation, hands out snacks to children in the program, in Des Moines, Iowa, Jan. 28, 2019.
Tricia Gabriel, co-founder of Genesis Youth Foundation, hands out snacks to children in the program, in Des Moines, Iowa, Jan. 28, 2019. VOA

Tricia wore clothes that suited her well in Liberia, but not so much in America. She said she was bullied and mocked in school.

Sam said refugee children feel torn, trying to conform to more American ways at school to avoid being bullied, yet facing pressure at home to carry on their traditions. They are often left feeling they don’t belong anywhere, he adds.

Sam wanted to help. At one point in his childhood in Ivory Coast, he said he ran away from his parents and was wandering homeless when a man he encountered helped him by giving him a place to stay and offering encouragement.

“Because of that man, every time I see young boys going through struggles, I know they need someone like me to help them through the struggle,” he said.

He started in 2009 with what he knew: soccer. At first, he brought together boys, many of whom couldn’t afford to join soccer clubs, for practice. He saw children from several African nations blend over their love of the game. He said he held them accountable for their behavior and for schoolwork, and he saw attitudes change.

Inspired by Sam’s passion, Tricia, 29, got involved, becoming the arts director of programming and adding a choir and dance group. Their small grassroots effort grew into a nonprofit in 2014, and in the past few years they have received a grant as well as a van to pick up the kids.

Abu Bakar of Des Moines brings his own children to Genesis programs after it helped him feel like he belonged and learn to communicate more effectively.
Abu Bakar of Des Moines brings his own children to Genesis programs after it helped him feel like he belonged and learn to communicate more effectively.

‘Hope’ the children give back

“My hope is that the children become better individuals in the community and give back after seeing what we do for them,” Tricia said.

On this frigid night, the school buzzed with activity. Some children played soccer, others danced. Another group huddled over school lessons, helped by a handful of volunteers. The children were born in several different African countries: Liberia, Uganda, Congo, Tanzania, Burundi, Eritrea and Somalia.

Abu Bakar, who joined the group while he was in high school, said it helped him stay out of trouble and build his communication skills after his parents moved to Iowa from Sierra Leone in 2005. Now in his mid-20s, he brings two sons, ages 4 and 5, to play soccer, too.

Other parents say the tutoring helps their children learn subjects they cannot teach them.

Korto Klar, 14, whose parents moved to Iowa from Liberia in 2005, said it helps her to be around other people who make her feel like she belongs.

Also Read: Nigerian Woman Struggle To Become The Country’s First Female President

The dance she is practicing on this frigid night is one she said she will perform in March, during a fundraiser, where refugee parents using their limited incomes and food stamps plan to cook a meal to share with the capital city’s larger community.

Sam said he wants the children to learn from the event: “You can’t be a leader until you           are a servant.” (VOA)

 

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More Science Careers: African School Of Physics on Mission To Educate New African Generation Through Traveling Program

"Science is increasingly recognized as an important engine of economic growth and societal advancement," she wrote in an email. She noted "increasing numbers of such programs on the African continent, where there is a surging young population entering the workforce."

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Ketevi Assamagan, a particle physicist at the U.S.-based Brookhaven National Laboratory, co-founded the African School of Physics, a training program for graduate students in math and sciences. (Photo courtesy of Brookhaven National Laboratory) VOA

Africa-born particle physicist Ketevi Assamagan is a man on a mission. His goal is to bring science education to a new generation of young Africans through a traveling program known as the African School of Fundamental Physics and Applications, or ASP.

“Sometimes, people just need some help to be able to find the right resources,” said Assamagan, an ASP founder who works at the U.S. Energy Department’s Brookhaven National Laboratory here on Long Island. “So, together with some colleagues, we decided to create this school.”

Born in Guinea, Assamagan grew up in Togo and earned a doctorate from the University of Virginia in 1995. Gratitude to past mentors fueled his desire to start the ASP, he said.

Positive elements

The ASP program runs for three weeks every two years in a different African country. The first was in 2010 in South Africa, with subsequent gatherings in Ghana, Senegal, Rwanda and Namibia. The next is planned for July 2020 in Marrakesh, Morocco.

Each workshop brings together up to 80 students, who are treated to intensive lectures and training by top-flight physicists.

Physicist Ketevi Assamagan demonstrates how a cloud chamber works. (A. Phillips/VOA)
Physicist Ketevi Assamagan demonstrates how a cloud chamber works. (A. Phillips/VOA)

“We get students from all over Africa [who] have at least three years of university education,” Assamagan said. “The majority of them are usually at the master’s level and they come from different fields: nuclear and high energy physics, medical applications, computing, mathematics and theoretical physics.”

The students’ expenses are covered by roughly 20 international sponsors, including the Brookhaven lab; the International Center for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy; the South African Department of Science and Technology; and Italy’s National Institute for Nuclear Physics.

Another sponsor has been the European Center for Nuclear Research, known as CERN, in Geneva. Assamagan worked on CERN’s particle accelerator for several years while conducting research on the elusive Higgs boson subatomic particle. He left in 2001 to join Brookhaven.

Sustained support

After the program, participants are paired with senior mentors who offer advice on additional education, teaching and research opportunities, both in Africa and abroad.

For Zimbabwe native Last Feremenga, participation in the 2010 ASP workshop served as a springboard to a doctorate in physics from the University of Texas. Now he’s a data scientist with Digital Reasoning, an artificial intelligence firm headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee.

“I sift through large datasets of written text in search of rare forms of conversations/language. These rare conversations are useful for our clients from health care to finance,” the 32-year-old told VOA in an email. He added that he’s using “similar tactics” to those he learned at ASP.

Julia MacKenzie, senior director of international affairs for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, says training programs such as ASP are especially important in developing countries.

“Science is increasingly recognized as an important engine of economic growth and societal advancement,” she wrote in an email. She noted “increasing numbers of such programs on the African continent, where there is a surging young population entering the workforce.”

“A potential impact of graduate training is exposure to new ideas and people,” MacKenzie added. “Any time graduate students can come together, it’s likely that new friendships will form, and those relationships can provide support through inevitable challenges and spawn new collaborations.”

application learning
“We get students from all over Africa [who] have at least three years of university education,” Assamagan said. “The majority of them are usually at the master’s level and they come from different fields: nuclear and high energy physics, medical applications, computing, mathematics and theoretical physics.” Pixabay
Hands-on learning

Assamagan says that when he was in high school in Togo, science was taught from second-hand textbooks from abroad. There was no experimentation.

“Direct involvement … in terms of playing with things and getting mental challenge to try to figure it out was not really there,” he said. “We want to resolve that” through ASP.

The 70 or so science teachers at the workshop last year in Namibia learned hands-on experiments that could be replicated with scant equipment and resources.

For example, using only a small plastic box with an aluminum plate, tin foil, Styrofoam, pure alcohol and dry ice, high school students could build a tabletop “cloud chamber” to simulate the detection of cosmic particles from outer space. Another experiment taught physics to elementary school children by way of art. The children could drip paint on a canvas tilted at various angles, then observe the patterns the paint made as it descended.

Also Read: E-Commerce Policy: Centre To Regulate Cross-Border Flow Of Data

“You can then start introducing the idea of gravity,” Assamagan said. “And then relating things falling down to the Earth going around the sun as being driven by the same force.”

Assamagan predicts a bright future for physics research in Africa. He says he sees talent and commitment, but that more digital libraries, along with continent-wide access to high-speed internet connections and the political will to provide them, are needed. (VOA)