By TIM COTTER & AARON FOSTER-WILLIAMS
Tim Cotter and Aaron Foster-Williams visit the Urban Erie Community Development Corporation to talk to their staff and students about new Americans and how the organization is providing help.
The United States of America provides a safe haven for refugees, accepting nearly 70,000 in 2015 alone. Their hardships nearly come to an end once they arrive in America, where they receive food, shelter, and clothing. However, many of these new citizens and their families are shocked by an entirely new set of problems upon arrival: culture shock.
Local professionals help new Americans transition from one culture into another. Gary Horton of the Urban Erie Community Development Corporation (UECDC) directs the E.F. Smith Quality of Life in Erie, Pa. His organization provides new Americans of all ages various social, educational and cultural services such as pre-employment training, G.E.D. programs and training programs for computer software such as Microsoft Word or Excel.
Horton also helps run Individualized Mentoring Performance and Comprehensive Training (I.M.P.A.C.T.), an after school leadership development program for new American students around Erie, from the ages eight to 18. The program runs Monday through Friday from 3:00PM until 7:00PM.The Quality of Life Learning Center joins forces with the Erie School District, YMCA Black Achievers, and other local professionals with the goal of helping to give migrant students the same educational and social opportunities as any other American student.
“We try to immerse them in activities which build upon a foundation of their own cultures, their own languages and their own religions” said Horton. “We don’t try to change them.” Employees at the Learning Center refer to the refugees and immigrants as “new Americans”. Horton says “new American” is a more inclusive and welcoming term than “refugee” or “immigrant.”
The stories of many of these migrant children are similar in some ways. All of the children in this interview migrated with their families from different parts of Africa. All of the girls can agree on certain differences between American and African culture. The idea of bullying is unheard of in African school systems because Africans place too high a priority on the sense of community within their populations and never put each other down deliberately. These girls were shocked when other students mocked and bullied them rather than welcoming them. The interview subjects were unaware of the term, African Americans.
Fanta Konneh came to America from Liberia when she was only four years old. She is now a 16 year old sophomore at East High School in Erie. Her family was shocked by the weather in Erie compared to Liberia’s warm climate. Her most interesting culture shock experience is when she learned what deodorant was. She always bathed daily and kept herself clean; she just didn’t know about all the extra steps Americans use to stay fresh. The school nurse gave her a deodorant tutorial one day, after students told Fanta they thought she smelled. Shukuru Rusi also attends East High. She spoke of rumors she remembers hearing when she was younger. “People would tell us if we came to America, the white people would turn you into soap,” said Rusi. They also believed money grew on trees in America. Anna Lawson (Nadou Kakuma) came to America from West Africa in 2009, when she was nine years old. Awuli was born in a refugee camp in Kenya, where she waited with her family to come to America for the first 11 years of her life. She initially arrived in Cleveland which she describes as “terrible.” Awuli was shocked by and didn’t appreciate the way the people of Cleveland treated one another, with violence and aggression. She also says she was called names at school in her earlier years as a new American.
Horton’s IMPACT program is a beneficial way to boost the confidence and leadership skills of new American children. Helping over nearly 70 children in Erie every day, the E.F. Smith in Erie is a staple in this community’s cultural diversity. Organizations like these come solely from the work of selfless individuals. Gary Horton, Walaa Ahmad and every other employee at the Quality of Life Learning Center contributes what they can to make sure our new citizens are able to live successful, happy lives.