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Program helps acclimate immigrants

It was with only the tiniest hint of trepidation that Rhoda Abdi, a petite and pretty young woman in a brown head scarf, rose from her seat to speak directly to a group of fellow immigrants from Africa about her experiences living in America.

She was, in effect, trying out her wings, testing her confidence after completing a seven-week course at the International Institute on Delaware Avenue aimed at helping her and 24 other Grover Cleveland High School students -- all of them refugees primarily from Ethiopia, Sudan, Sierra Leone and Somalia -- better acclimate to their new home.

"I don't like asking people questions. I don't like people asking me questions," Rhoda confided after the exercise.

It is, perhaps, understandable. The 17-year-old high school junior arrived in this country with her family only 2 1/2 years ago, and, while she appears to be largely fluent in English, it still doesn't come as easily to her as her native language.

But David Rust, program director for the Youth Character Development Foundation, which runs the pilot program along with the International Institute, is encouraging, complimenting Rhoda on her great smile and another student on his kind manner and yet another on her mature insights.

The pilot program, funded by Bettina Weary, Ph.D., Charitable Trust and the Lawley Service Insurance Group of Companies, focuses on helping the youngsters increase their social and communication skills, along with academic improvement, leadership and making good decisions.

"We've got a lot of refugees here that nobody knows about. There are pockets of them living here. So our goal is to take these students, these young achievers, and show them what's out there," said Rust.

The youngsters were exposed to some of the options that await them on a field trip to Daemen College and hearing from various guest speakers.

"They all are here, ready to go to college, striving to do [well] on their SATs and in their high school courses and asking me great questions," said Kharmen Wingard, admissions counselor at Daemen College and a 2005 graduate of the college.

"They all have very unique stories. We may be the same color, but with me growing up in Buffalo, it's a lot different from where they come from," Wingard added.

Still, they face their challenges with a remarkable enthusiasm.

Like Rhoda, Bilal Musee and his family arrived in this country from a refugee camp in Kenya only 2 1/2 years ago. Asked what he cherished most about his life in America, Musee, like Rhoda and the rest, answered without hesitation, the free access to education.

"In Kenya, there was this school, but you have to pay money [to attend]," said Bilal, a 16-year-old junior. "It costs like $150 for one person. I was very surprised [to have access to a free education in the U.S.]. Education is good. It will do something to your future and your children's futures."

He also wants to help people. "I just want to be a caseworker, maybe a teacher to help the people [who] come from other countries," Bilal added.

Maryan Salim, 18, of Kenya, also was born in Somalia. While acknowledging the difficulty of trying to master English in only two short years, Maryan relishes the challenge.

"It was so difficult, but now that I have been through school, I'm really happy that I understand the American language better now, but it took me a lot of time. Well, it didn't take a whole year, because I'm not shy to do something. Every time, I'm not good [at mastering the language], I ask my teachers, I ask my friends . . . I even ask my friends that are Spanish, and I learn how to say in Spanish, 'hola!' " she said.

e-mail: hmcneil@buffnews.com

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