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Under-the-radar East Side Prep guides immigrants to academic success

Anita Lakareber has a smile that fills up a room, providing no hint of the rough war-ravaged Ugandan background she escaped.

Her father, a mechanical engineer, died when she was only 2, her mother when she was 6. Luckily, she was too young to be married off or abducted by the rebel army in northern Uganda.

Instead, she became an advocate in her teen years, hosting her own radio talk show in Uganda and creating greater awareness about issues like gender-based violence, HIV/AIDS and drug abuse.

“I prayed a lot,” she said. “The fact that I was able to survive through the war gave me enough courage to believe that after that, there would be a time when everything was OK.”

She was right. While she doesn’t provide details about the international peace organization that brought her to Buffalo and Vive La Casa three years ago, she has enrolled at Erie Community College while also working full-time as an administrative assistant at BAK USA, which brings affordable tablets to developing African nations.

Lakareber, 21, has compiled grade-point averages of 4.0 and 3.96 in her first two semesters at ECC, which recently named her Student of the Year.

She’s survived and persevered, but along the way she also got a big break from a largely under-the-radar effort, informally known as East Side Prep.

Local attorney Michael S. Taheri and his wife, Josette, through their St. Luke’s Mission of Mercy on Buffalo’s East Side, have twisted enough arms and relied on their community contacts to raise the money to send Lakareber and five other immigrants to ECC and Trocaire College. Because these young people are not U.S. citizens, they are not eligible for federal or state college aid.

Taheri’s goal with Our Lady of Hope Child’s Services scholarship fund is simple, to turn immigrants, including undocumented aliens, into educated, productive and tax-paying members of society.

“Education is the exit strategy for poverty,” he said. “That’s doubly true for undocumented aliens, because they don’t get any benefits.

“These students don’t look at education as a right,” he added. “They look at it as an opportunity. They listen to advice, and they don’t make excuses.”

Lakareber, still seeking refugee status, is the prime example. She works 40 hours a week, attends ECC night classes and still manages to get almost straight A’s.

Taheri met her in the St. Luke’s dining hall in November 2013. He immediately noticed her Ugandan accent, her big smile and her interpersonal skills.

“My sense was that she had a strong passion to be successful,” he said. “It was that immigrant mindset, ‘I’m not going to be beaten down.’ ”

Lakareber, who lives on property owned by St. Luke’s in the city’s Walden-Sycamore area, gets off work at 4:30 p.m. on weekdays, attends her four ECC classes – microbiology lecture and lab, public speaking and medical terminology – from 5 to 7:30 p.m. and then does her schoolwork at nights and on weekends.

“It’s just commitment and hard work,” she said. “I have a strict timetable.”

Echoing Taheri’s words, she added, “Quite honestly, education to me is not just a right. It’s an honor and a privilege.”

Her favorite thing about ECC is its cultural diversity.

“It’s so rich,” she said. “The first time I entered the building I was apprehensive, but it’s so warm, so welcoming, with people from all [over].”

Taheri remains struck by the academic success of Lakareber and the five other students. They’re often taking the most difficult subjects, especially in math and science, and they’re headed toward careers with job openings, like Lakareber’s plan for either a nursing or medical career.

“Their success flies in the face of everything that’s being said politically about this population,” he said. “Their success is spiritually uplifting and academically incredible.”

The son of an Iranian immigrant father, Taheri combines his spirituality with his concern for today’s immigrant population in a tough political environment.

“Spiritually, I think God said, ‘Here is the most vulnerable population we have in the community, undocumented aliens who are struggling to get into college or vocational programs,’ ” he said. “The objective of this whole program is to lift up that population from the bottom. There are no other options.”

Taheri has built close connections with ECC and Trocaire College officials. But he also has a crew of about three dozen mostly white-collar professionals he regularly solicits, for both academic and financial support.

“I humble myself,” he said. “Every day I beg for something, whether it’s a computer, college funds, clothing, gift cards for Tim Hortons ...”

That group has raised roughly $50,000 for the scholarship fund. Taheri’s pitch to big donors is simple: Why not invest in young people, rather than in bricks?

“From that $50,000 investment, we’ve already got four college graduates [as of this spring], who are working and are now taxpayers, and two more absolutely on track.”

The other five students come from two families. They are Nina Rumbo, who graduated from ECC and now works as a paralegal; Marina Rumbo, another ECC grad who completed a fashion internship in New York City and wants to attend SUNY Buffalo State; Max Rumbo, who graduates from Emerson School of Hospitality this spring and will enter Trocaire in the fall; Diego Reynoso, a Trocaire graduate attending nursing school there; and Cristian Reynoso, planning to graduate from ECC this spring in computer-aided design.

Like a demanding teacher or professor, Taheri also isn’t afraid to push and prod his students.

That includes Lakareber, who plans to be a nurse. Taheri wants to push her toward medical school.

“This is my role,” he said. “She gets to say what she wants to do. But I want to prod her to go further. That’s my job here.”

Lakareber sat down with Marina and Max Rumbo, the three of them struggling to express how thankful they are to Taheri and all the people who have established or donated to this fund.

“There isn’t any amount of gratitude that I can ever show to them that would be enough,” Lakareber said. “I would do anything for them.”

She also summed up her feelings toward Taheri.

“He’s a lot of things to me. He’s an inspiration, a mentor, a friend and a father figure.

“I’m just another person in the world hoping for a better life,” she added. “I want to grow up in a more peaceful environment and to give back to those who have less opportunity or have walked the same path.”