In 2008, Anisa returned from the market in Mogadishu, Somalia, to find that her home had been destroyed by an explosion. Though she couldn’t find her mother or her children, she had to leave for her own safety. With a group of neighbors, she fled to Djibouti, then Eritrea, then Sudan, then Libya—none of which were safe or welcoming to refugees. From Libya, the group spent five days in a boat before landing on the shores of Malta.
In Malta, Anisa lived in a detention center, and was seduced by a man who promised to help her survive. After three years in Malta and pregnant with the man’s second child, Anisa received an opportunity to resettle in Denver as a single mom.
For refugees like Anisa, resettlement is just the first step in a long process of building a new life, and that’s where the Colorado African Organization (CAO) comes in. CAO helps more than 5,000 refugee families per year from all over the world. The organization supports refugees in becoming self-sufficient with the help of English as a Second Language (ESL) and citizenship classes, legal guidance, and community navigators—people who help them understand American culture and engage in their children’s education.
“When refugees are picked up from the resettlement agency, they don’t have any contacts, and they don’t understand things like, ‘call the school when your kid is sick”,” says Jill Fricker, CAO executive director, adding that not everyone knows that refugees come to the United States legally. “Our community navigators help parents understand the school system.”
Anisa worked with CAO community navigator Farduus Yusuf, who attended parent-teacher conferences with her. Anisa has a son with autism, so Yusuf also helped Anisa find him the resources he needs.
Now, thanks to CAO, Anisa has become an American citizen and navigates her children’s education completely on her own. “She attends school functions and raises her hand in school meetings to ask questions,” says Fricker. “She has become a leader and she helps others understand. She has a voice.”
Yusuf says she saw Anisa’s confidence grow dramatically, and she’s not alone. Fricker reports that in a survey of refugee parents who worked with a community navigator, 100 percent had a greater understanding of what is involved in a strong teacher/parent relationship. In addition, 98.6 percent of parents saw their child’s school attendance improve, and the same percentage had an improved ability to support their students toward graduation.
“The goal is that they know the difference between their home and here,” Yusuf says. “We encourage them to look at their child’s homework and to communicate with the teachers so they will understand more.”
How Families Can Help
Fricker says that CAO hopes to expand “relationship building and integration” between refugee families and American families. Do this by:
- Being a mentor to a refugee parent. American parents can pair with refugee parents with similarly aged children, to help them navigate the culture here.
- Having your family share a meal with a refugee family at CAO’s offices.
- Allowing your child to play with a refugee child. Bring your child to CAO’s offices and help supervise play with a refugee child while the parent is taking classes.
Contact CAO for more details on these opportunities, or see the website under “Take Action” for other ways to volunteer, including serving on the board and teaching ESL or citizenship classes.
Colorado African Organization