Thursday, May 21, 2009

Lessons in Life and Language

With only stories of violence to remind them of their homeland, Werdi Mugaya and Zeytun Aden have made a connection with a new language, and a new life in America. Werdi and Zeytun were born in a refugee camp in Kenya after their parents escaped years of war in Somalia. They are now part of the close-knit support system of Somalians in Syracuse.

The brother and sister did not have the often have the opportunity to attend school in Africa, and when they did, it was less than ideal.

"If you were late they would slap your hands and make you do push-ups," said Werdi.

Culture Clash

Upon arriving in America the two did not know any English and barely knew how to read and write in their native tongue, Maimai (my-my). So they had to start from scratch. Werdi and Zeytun entered third grade at Grant Middle School. In a foreign environment they were scared and frustrated.

"I think I cried the first day," said Zeytune.

They were teased by American students, reminding them of the prejudice their parents suffered in Somalia. Werdi and Zeytun are Somali-Bantus, a minority underclass in Somalia that was first brought to the country as slaves.

"I felt upset and angry. It made me want to leave America and go back to where I came from in the first place," said Werdi.

It Takes a Community

They got help learning English and coping with social issues during a program organized by the Somali-Bantu community. At what they simply call, Saturday School, they are tutored by students from Syracuse University and other volunteers. Haji Adan is the director and very passionate about its purpose.

Haji tells the kids, “If someone is teasing you, don’t listen and focus on your own personal education.”

Somali-Bantus volunteer their time and donate what money they can, even buying snacks for the kids with food stamp money. Haji and other organizers have raised money from churches, government aid programs and have discussed their plan with the Mayor Driscoll. Their goal is to educate youth so that they can have a future here in America, that was not possible in Africa.
Looking Toward the Future

“When we first started the program I thought it would only be open for one or two months, but now we have 120 kids,” said Haji.

Haji hopes to have over 200 kids soon. Werdi and Zeytun want to someday take what they learn here, back to Africa to help others as they have been helped.

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