refugee children being tutored

Empowering Refugees | The Helpers Next Door

May 3, 2020  | 107

by Theresa Knight

Sam Gabriel is passionate about finding ways to empower and level the playing field for refugee and immigrant children in the Des Moines area. He and his wife Tricia are co-founders of the Genesis Youth Foundation, a group that focuses on engaging students in academics, sports and the arts. When the COVID-19 crisis began, they were able to transition their tutoring program online and distribute computers to students very early on. They have also been making masks and delivering culturally relevant meals to people in need. 

How were you able to keep kids engaged with their learning right away?

When we finished our winter session, the kids were on spring break. Then, as we were planning our spring program, we decided to transition to an online tutoring program. They can still use IXL and have kids work at home, but most kids didn't have computers.

We're proud to be a small team. We were able to distribute 50 - 60 computers from our center. We also recruited volunteers to be online tutors.

What went through your mind when schools canceled for the rest of the year?

When Des Moines Public Schools canceled classes I was concerned. I knew this would impact kids significantly. Most summers, we run academic programs to build skills, so to be out of school for so long could create a huge gap. We managed to get kids equipped — and we created messaging for families in multiple languages on YouTube. 

We want to get the message out to families about the value of being involved in learning at home. We're adding announcements weekly to remind parents and kids. We recently added a new feature using Zoom to meet with kids in grades 6-12 to talk to and check in with them, and we hope to continue that weekly.

What unique challenges do refugee families face during the COVID-19 crisis?

Many families, especially those from African countries, are reliving a crisis. They are being kept in homes, afraid to come out or to associate with friends. 

Seeing people grab [at the empty shelves] is very scary for me. I experienced civil war 20 years ago. This reminds me of that time. When I was in second grade we would see news reports of rebels coming to our city.First the schools closed, then the electricity went off, then we had to stay indoors and then the rebels attacked our city. I'm concerned for newly arrived refugees. Some are reliving the Ebola crisis and remembering how many people died.

Your students are celebrating a fun milestone — 100,000 questions answered correctly. How does that make you feel?

I am excited about and proud of the entire Genesis team, including my wife, Tricia, who is the program director — and our volunteers. I am especially proud of the children, because many of them are self-initiating the work at home with no parents' interventions. They do it because they see the value in education and that they do not want to let us down for not following the program.

Are you seeing other signs of the success of your work?

We see many signs of success. Genesis has been using soccer and arts as a way to get our participants to attend programs and be engaged in academic activities. However, the fact that we are still able to do that from a distance is a sign of growth and success. Our hope moving forward is to offer our academic programming online while we focus more on arts and soccer when we meet in person. This would be a massive success for our program.

We have always had hope and faith that Genesis will prevail, especially with the level of support and love that the community as a whole has shown to our mission. If anything, I would say that this, too, is inspiring and motivating.

Editor's Note: This interview was edited and condensed for clarity. Photos provided by Sam Gabriel.