The kids careen into the Pittsburgh Gifted Center in Crafton Heights at various speeds. Some move fast, talking, joking, laughing. Others enter slowly, shyly approach the sign-in table, and give their names.

“Salaam, Achmed! Abdul, Fatima, nice to see you. You’re in orange (group). You’re in green.”

The kids go tearing down the hall.

One little girl apparently moved a little too fast — arriving in tears, glasses askew. She had slipped outside in the snow that had arrived suddenly on a cold March afternoon. It’s hard adjusting to a new place, especially one with such weird weather.

Starting over across the world

These kids come here for an after-school program run by Jewish Family and Community Services (JFCS) and Alliance for Refugee Youth Support and Education (ARYSE), which helps refugee children build the English-language skills that will allow them to succeed in their new American schools.

“It’s hard for English learners to fit into traditional after-school programs,” says Andrew Van Treeck, coordinator for refugee and immigrant services at JFCS, who met the kids at the door.

This program serves Congolese, Syrian, Afghan and Somali students, for the most part. There are about 50 kids in the program, ranging from kindergarten age through high school seniors.

“The program is free,” says Van Treeck, “and in walking distance of their homes,” many of which are in Crafton Heights.

JFCS is one of the main resettlers of refugees in Pittsburgh, among its many other missions. For this program, JFCS provides mentor training for the volunteers. All mentors must have their clearances to work with children.

ARYSE also runs a summer camp for refugee students.

Serving an ongoing need

Most of the refugees in Pittsburgh first fled their homes in the 1990s.

“There’s still too much violence — from militias, government — to return home safely,” says Van Treeck. “The average refugee spends an average of 20 years in the (refugee) camps.”

JFCS provides the volunteers, while ARYSE provides the programming. The primary goal is to help refugee kids with their homework, and offer some English-learning enrichment activities for variety. The groups are led by volunteer mentors, most of whom are college-aged. One Duquesne professor makes participation part of her students’ grades.

A.J. Arnett, 22, is one of those students in Dr. Jennie Schulze’s class, “The Politics of Immigration.”

“I love being here,” says Arnett. “I really like getting to know these kids, getting to feel as if I have some sort of impact, even if it’s ridiculously small. Being able to help one of the most vulnerable communities on Earth. I’ve learned a lot about what these kids’ lives are like, transplanted into a new culture. It’s one of those things you can’t learn from a book.”

He points out one small kid, Ramadan, who’s out in the hall. After admonishing him to find his group, Arnett says this little guy is fun to work with.

“Every time there’s a button to push, he’s into it,” he explains.”I showed him my virtual reality goggles.”

Students like Ramadan are divided into groups of eight to 12. While younger kids mostly get help with homework, older kids get some introductions to possible job opportunities — like summer jobs with the city’s Parks Department, for instance.

The goal is to “build a system where they are able to do better in school, and feel less socially isolated and more part of the community in a broader sense,” says Jenna Baron, director of ARYSE.

Michael Machosky

Michael Machosky is a writer and journalist with 18 years of experience writing about everything from development news, food and film to art, travel, books and music. He lives in Greenfield with his wife, Shaunna, and 10-year old son.