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Literacy and neighborly love at the West Michigan Refugee Education and Cultural Center

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Learning, discovering opportunities, and building relationships
Executive Director Susan Kragt at GVSU with Leadership Program students

Executive Director Susan Kragt at GVSU with Leadership Program students /West Michigan Refugee Education and Cultural Center

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A student at the center

A student at the center /West Michigan Refugee Education and Cultural Center

Friends at the center

Friends at the center /West Michigan Refugee Education and Cultural Center

From its roots as a mutual assistance association started in 2006 by Somali Bantu and Kenyan refugees and immigrants, to its current leadership under Executive Director Susan Kragt, the West Michigan Refugee Education and Cultural Center has thrived on the sense of community its participants have created. The center is a hub for successful cultural integration, educational opportunities and the empowerment of refugee and immigrant families. Each of these objectives is bolstered by the community’s mutual desire to see one another succeed.

Often, this success has to do with literacy. According to Kragt, the Somali-Bantu—a people group who make up a large proportion of the participants at the center—were denied access to education in Somalia. Likewise, many of them lived in camps where they didn’t have access to education, and they come to the center without any type of academic background.

The center provides after school programming for students K-12 four days a week. It is run on volunteer tutor power. With their tutors, students finish homework and then focus on reading, with the aim of reaching or surpassing their grade-appropriate literacy level.

Attendance used to be low and sporadic—about 3 students per day. The center’s recent move into a few classrooms at St. Alphonsus made the location within walking distance for most families and the number of students rose to almost 40, with space for about 10 more.

Other than transportation and the language barrier, Kragt noted that racism is a continued problem for the refugees and immigrants she serves.

“It’s supposed to be a two-way street in terms of adapting, and usually it’s just, ‘no, this is how you survive, so this is what you have to do.’”

The staff realizes the great challenge in maintaining a native culture while assimilating to a new one. Soon, the center will be offering citizenship classes and plans to hold more cultural celebrations.

“Most of the students in the program have been coming since the beginning,” Kragt said. “We try to keep it that way. It means we don’t get to serve tons of new students all the time, but our goal is that our students graduate from high school and enroll in college, so being with them that whole time is really important.”

Kragt stressed the value of parents interacting with their children to promote academic success, including reading with their children in their native language. The center offers encouragement and workable skills for parents to aid their children in learning, regardless of their own academic background.

“Sometimes the parents will come to the program and sit with the kids while they’re learning just to reinforce that they expect their kids to be here.”

Many older students go through a Youth Leadership Program and then enroll as volunteers to work with younger students at the center. Program highlights include college visits, guest speakers and setting goals and priorities for academic success. 

“We ask all the kids what they want to be when they grow up and teach them to ask that question.”

Kragt related the story of a student in the Youth Leadership Program who was initially disobedient.

“She just needed someone to tell her that she could do it and ask her to step up. Now she’s one of our best volunteers. It just shows that it’s not just in-depth academic support—sometimes that’s needed—but a lot of times it’s just someone asking the right questions.”

Kragt has been asking questions herself, about what it means to integrate and to address issues of racism.

“If I’m asking people to give so much up, what am I willing to change—not just with any one group, but in general—how do I change my life so that I’m able to get along with others? I don’t think I have an answer, but I’m asking the question.”

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