Columbus, Ohio, is home to approximately 45,000 Somali refugees. Serving those in Columbus’ Wedgewood Village is English as a Second Language Afterschool Communities (ESLAsC) Program, a Youth Empowerment Program that helps Somali Bantu youth adapt and thrive.
Driven from their homeland by continued unrest and civil war, members of the Somali Bantu Tribe began their long journey to Columbus, Ohio, on foot. Taking what little they could carry, the Bantu fled their villages in southern Somalia and walked west into Kenya, seeking safety in refugee camps established by the United Nations. There, the waiting game began: With few educational and employment opportunities, refugees accustomed to working long hours in agricultural fields were asked to sit and wait for eventual immigration. Often, the waiting lasts up to 10 years, sometimes more. Once immigration finally did occur, they settled into communities like Wedgewood Village, an affordable housing complex with 650 units on Columbus’s west side.
“Life as a refugee is very tough,” says Bantu Elder Abdukadir Matan. “There’s never enough anything … education, housing, food. Everything is suffering. But there is a better life here in America, and this program gives great opportunity.”
The program Matan refers to is ESL Afterschool Communities (ESLAsC). Housed at Wedgewood, ESLAsC helps immigrant children of the Bantu Tribe — and by extension, their parents — acquire the resources, skills, and guidance needed to achieve their full potential as American citizens.
“Typically, by the time these children arrive,” says program coordinator Florence Plagenz, “they’re in seventh grade with a first grade-level education … or no education at all. We give them a safe environment where they can receive homework help and learn about American culture and social norms.
“We’re the fork in the road. Where they could go wrong, we help them go right.”
— Florence Plagenz, ESLAsC Program Coordinator
The ESLAsC Program takes care to return to the foundation of education, addressing basic needs such as reading and writing, ultimately attempting to teach the students much of what they missed during their time in the refugee camps.
Tutors from Columbus State and a certified site specialist in TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) go into the schools and work in the classrooms with individual ESLAsC students who need the most help. They also host an after school Power Hour, working one-on-one with students on homework and providing academic enrichment.
“One of the best things we can do,” says Plagenz, “is know where each kid is educationally so we can give them the individualized attention they need, the attention they’re not otherwise able to receive, and we’re seeing results.” In 2010-11, 93% of the students in the program increased their reading proficiency by at least one grade level. “We see small changes and successes every day. But the potential that exists for these students, these families, to be successful citizens in the future is so great.”
In helping the students, ESLAsC offers a bridge from school to home, which is crucial for their success — academic and otherwise — because their parents are not able to help with their homework and have never received formal education themselves (most do not speak English). In fact, language barriers also tend to prevent Bantu families from understanding the benefits of proper nutrition and physical activity.
Health disparities run high for children of immigrant families: Their general health status is worse than native-born children, and they’re much more likely to live in poverty. In 2002, 41% of impoverished youth living in Franklin County were overweight. But obesity is just the tip of the iceberg.
“Living here,” says Plagenz, “there’s a lot of violence, a lot of drug use, stuff they see every day walking to and from school, walking home at night. We try to be that other voice saying, there’s a better option for you … one that represents a better outcome.”
“This program is really important,” says 13-year old Asli, an ESLAsC student who’s been in the program nine months and has already seen major improvements on her report card. “They teach us about how to say no to drugs and gangs. They teach us about our health. They help us with our homework. We do exercises and things to boost our confidence.”
At its heart, ESLAsC attempts to instill skills in the students that will empower them to make better choices for themselves than those they’ve made previously. It’s working: The number of behavioral incidents in 2010-11 decreased by 36% compared to the previous school year, and suspensions were down 38%, as well. The program’s not just helping them get by, it’s helping them succeed.
“This program has really helped us a lot,” says Asli. “It’s made a huge difference in my life.”
Asli’s classmate, Maryan, feels the same way. “I used to never care about school. But since I joined this program, I’ve made the Honor Roll twice, and I’ve learned how to control my anger.”
“We’re giving these kids hope,” says Plagenz. “We’re giving them a chance … a chance for happiness in life. A chance for success.”
With the help of ESLAsC, Bantu Tribal youth are are setting a course for a better life. Says Asli: “I want to go to college when I grow up. Thanks to this program, I’m really excited about my future.”