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Young Sudanese refugees find their footing in a new country and culture

(University of Utah)

Estimated read time: 3-4 minutes

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Correction: (11/13/2014) The story originally reported that there are more than 50,000 war refugees in Utah, but the number is closer to 30,000.SALT LAKE CITY — Utah is home to more than 30,000 refugees from countries split by war and violence. About 5,000 of those refugees fled South Sudan for camps in other parts of Africa and finally settled in Salt Lake City according to Utah's Refugee Services. A University of Utah professor from Sudan is helping that country's youth take advantage of opportunities right here in Utah.

Dr. Tino Nyawelo has been at the University of Utah since 2007 and said he sees the challenges facing youth from South Sudan.

"We experience some of the kids who are brought here in 10th and 11th grade are very difficult to catch up and they start to drop out and then start misbehaving," Nyawelo said.

In response, the University of Utah's Center for Science and Math Education, Refugee Services, and Utah's Department of Workforce Services teamed up to start an after-school program that addresses the unique needs of the teenage refugee population. The program includes tutoring, counseling and socializing.

"I got involved because I want to do many wonderful things in my future," said Apiak Gai, a junior at Juan Diego Catholic High School.

Nyawelo said focusing on the future is an important part of the after-school study sessions and presentations.

I got involved because I want to do many wonderful things in my future.

–Apiak Gai, junior

"Being just in a new country is very challenging by itself," he said.

Freshman Lula Deng agrees.

"We're in America and we're not really unified as we would be back in Africa," Deng said. "So, it's kind of a cool thing to come together with other Sudanese youth and get help with homework and stuff."

Sophomore Vicki Omal said she has seen improvements in herself since beginning the program.

"If it wasn't for this program, I wouldn't be getting good grades or doing well today," Omal said.

Another goal of the program is to interest more refugees, women, and other minorities in science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM subjects. During a recent visit to the Salt Lake Center for Science Education, students participated in an after-school STEM workshop on prime colors led by Julie Callahan of the University of Utah.

Luqman Abdi, a sixth-grader at the Center, said the teaching went one step further than just giving basic information.

"It's not just teaching you about prime colors," Abdi said. "She's taking it a step forward and explaining why."

Refugees Exploring the Foundations of Undergraduate Education in Science
  • Launched at the U of U in 2012
  • Designed to help students from groups traditionally underrepresented in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) disciplines
  • Provides mentoring and tutoring, one-on-one interaction with scientists, assistance with college applications and a strong network

Seventh-grader Sandra Perez agreed.

"I like how we're learning about the colors and all that," Perez said. "I think it really connects with science, and science is one of my favorite subjects."

Nyawelo said science was his favorite subject, growing up in Sudan. He left his home to study physics for his graduate work in Europe.

"At that time, I went through the same experiences that those kids are going through now," he said. "My education was in a different language even though science is universal. But I went through difficulties also."

Nyawelo's program is 200 young Sudanese refugees get their footing in a new country and culture.

Junior Abok Awan said she is fortunate to have the program and her life in Utah.

"We know how it's been and how rough it's been, so we don't take living here for granted," she said.

The program is in its third year and has graduated a number of students from high school into science and math majors at the university level.

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Sandra Olney


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