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Identity & Community

For Some Refugee Youth, Acclimating To The U.S. Starts With Summer Camp

On a humid Friday afternoon in the West End, students practice soccer and push each other on the swings. The kids are loud, except for the few listening to music on their phones under the shade of a tree.

Some speak Swahili, some Arabic, but they all understand how to play.

The 5th annual Pittsburgh Refugee Youth Summer Enrichment program, or PRYSE Academy, is serving about 70 middle- and high-schoolers this year.

Each morning starts with classroom time – something many of the kids have never experienced. They practice English language skills by playing word games and writing in journals. 

They practice writing out sentences with the game "two truths and a lie." Jackson Uwimana reads his three sentences aloud to the group, who must guess the lie.

“I read it louder guys,” he said. “I love red color. I like to play football. I like to go to school.”

(His favorite color is actually blue.)

Credit Virginia Alvino Young / 90.5 WESA News
90.5 WESA News
ARYSE Executive Director Jenna Baron spends one on one time with a student, studying world geography.

Hamadi Hamadi, 15, who's attending for a second year, said his home country doesn't have "summer camp."

“Kenya, when I was there, my family was poor. They don’t have nothing, no food,” he said. “So we decided to come to America when I was 10 years old.”

Hamadi is naturally quiet, but his counselors say he’s more extroverted this year and even branching out, making friends beyond his core group of East African natives. 

“In here, it help my English get better,” he said. “It help you like, how to talk aloud like that. Sometime I feel shy to talk.”

Jenna Baron is the executive director of the nonprofit ARYSE, which operates PRYSE. She said improving communication is key. The political climate in the U.S. makes it even more urgent to create a space specifically for these kids to express themselves and their needs, she said, something usually beyond the capacity of English as a Second Language facilitators in traditional public schools.

“I think ESL teachers really look to us to provide a fun space that’s not high stakes and that leaves a lot of opportunity for kids to make friends with other kids who are having similar experiences,” she said.

Baron said a lot of refugee kids miss out on extracurricular programs because, besides the language gap, many kids have responsibilities at home like taking care of younger siblings. PRYSE works with resettlement agencies and intentionally reaches out to parents to get them on board.

Credit Virginia Alvino Young / 90.5 WESA News
90.5 WESA News
Mbavumoja Hussein practices swinging with no hands during recess.

“I think this is a very new experience for a lot of families,” Baron said.

In most ways, these are just average kids, but they often come from places plagued by war and violence. Counselors are trained to deal with kids who may have experienced trauma, and the camp takes extra care to create a stable environment.

“Every morning making sure they can see the schedule, and they know what’s going to be happening and they know what to expect,” she said. “We have a list of what counselors will be on site that day, so they’re not surprised or concerned about where people are.”

Baron said practically everything is new to these kids, but PRYSE works to create a smooth transition into the next school year. They become familiarized with American foods, learn how to follow a structured lesson plan and how to navigate public transportation to camp – things that Mbavumoja Hussein, from Congo, now loves to do.
“I come here, I have so much fun," Hussein said. “And next summer, I’m gonna come here [again].”