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Somali students benefit from charity, but education gap remains

Somali students benefit from charity, but education gap remains literacy-column.jpg
Stephen Freyman looks at homework with Ayub Abdullahi, who came to Springfield five years ago as a refugee from civil war in Somalia. The Freyman family has been tutoring Ayub's family and trying to get more intensive help for the children from the Springfield Public Schools.
By Marie P. Grady Special to Reminder Publications Madina Fille doesn't say a word when she is asked how old six of her children were when they died of disease. She just crosses her arms and rocks the empty space from side to side. "They were babies," says one of her five surviving children. Five years and more than 7,000 miles from the civil war they fled in Somalia, this family counts its blessings in Springfield. The children Madina has brought on this journey are all healthy and smile easily. They speak and understand spoken English well after arriving here with no formal education and little or no knowledge of modern life in America. Yet, when Madina's son Mohamed Abdullahi, 15, is asked to read the words embossed on a "Reader of the Month" award he recently received at school, he stops at the word "congratulations." His brother, Ayub Abdullahi, 17, shows a visitor a notebook with elegantly scripted algebraic equations but admits he does not understand what the word "rope" means in one of the homework problems. It is that gulf of knowledge that frustrates Ellen and Richard Freyman, who have offered tutoring and support along with their sons Neal, 17, and Stephen, 14, to this Somali family for two years. They would like to see more intensive language and reading classes offered to the Somali children, but they have met a brick wall of budgetary and regulatory issues. In a district where nearly half of high school students don't graduate, concerns about educational progress are not confined to the Somali students. And the federal funding that came with the city's decision to welcome them in 2003 dried up long ago. Still, Ellen Freyman, a former elementary school teacher and Springfield attorney, believes there has to be a way: "There's enough resources in this community; there's people who care in this community." On a recent visit, she fields requests for help replacing a broken refrigerator, the need for more chairs and a table; a Somali youth soccer team's need of uniforms and a note from school saying Mohamed cannot go on a field trip unless he raises $45. Her law firm, Shatz, Schwartz and Fentin P.C., already donated the family a computer. For its part, the school system is still coping with a Somali diaspora that has led to success stories in some cities nationwide where established networks of educated Somalis help newcomers and challenges in poor cities where opportunities are fleeting. A new Somali support group headed by Abdikadir Ali Yunye and Hussein Robow has set up a Web site at www.somalibantuspfldma.org/1701.html and is looking for office space and grant support to offer language classes and transportation to newer refugees. It's not the first time concerns about the education of the Somali children has arisen here. A few years ago the federal Office of Civil Rights found that the school system was not adequately educating the children, forcing the system to hire five Somali teacher's aides and to cluster the children in the five schools where they work. Many of the students had no formal education, leaving an educational deficit of seven years or more to make up. As director of bilingual programs for the city's schools, Sylvia Galv n has personally recruited Somali aides and hired consultants to help the city overcome communication barriers sometimes rooted in ancient tribal traditions. Regulatory barriers include a state law limiting the time children can spend in bilingual education and course requirements tied to state standardized testing. Still, Galv n, also a member of the Hampden County Literacy Cabinet, says she welcomes community support that could lead to additional tutoring or in-class assistance, not only for Somali students but for all children. Azell Cavaan, chief communications officer for the schools, said the district and many dedicated teachers with limited resources bear a huge responsibility in addressing the unique and varying needs of students. She called community support "a critical piece of the puzzle, especially for students facing so many challenges." On a recent night, children on porches across the street watch as Madina's children grab one last treat from the back seat of the Freyman's car. For all of their struggles, these children have received a gift few poor immigrants will get in this country the friendship of a generous family. Their gratitude shows in their warm smiles and the quintessentially American words that drift from their lips on this early summer evening. "Take care," they call out as the car moves down the street. Marie P. Grady is liaison for the Literacy Works Project of the Hampden County Regional Employment Board and can be reached at mgrady@rebhc.org. To donate uniforms or money to the Somali soccer team, contact team leader Adan Abdi at 364-9287.

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