Visit area mosques and you may find an interesting combination of sounds. There's the call for prayers. But these days, you may also hear something else -- kids typing away on computers.
Over the weekend, students play computer games, but during the week, the computers are used to finish homework and to supplement English and math skills learned in school.
The computer labs at the cultural centers were supplied by a nonprofit organization called Generation for Change and Growth, or GCG. It's an organization founded by two Somalis educated in Kenya who now work at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis.
Mohamud Moallin is a medical technologist, and Ali Mahamud is a pharmacist. Though both have full-time jobs, they started the group with their own money and with the help of volunteers.
"We saw huge disparities here in the United States," says Mahamud. "We thought this might be due to the fact that there is no early exposure to education."
Many of the Somalis now in the Twin Cities once lived in Kenya. Moallin and Mahamud decided to attack the roots of the education issue, treating the problem both in Kenya and the U.S.
In Kenya, GCG volunteers literally help convince Somali parents to send their kids to school. Because Somalis in the area have been displaced from their own country, Mahamud says there is confusion within the community about whether the Kenyan government will support education for Somalis.
In Minnesota, GCG tries to establish a stronger support infrastructure for Somali high school and college students. They have tutors come to the computer labs in several different cultural centers. They've also set up a mentorship program where college students shadow local professionals.
Nadar Ali shadowed a doctor through GCG's mentorship program. Ali is a student at the University of Minnesota majoring in biochemistry.
Both of Ali's parents have a middle school education. While they were successful businesspeople in Kenya, their lack of English language skills prevented them from doing something similar here.
Ali says she has been motivated to do well in high school because her parents made education a priority.
"Though my mother didn't know how to help me out with math and science, she will sit next to me and make sure I take out the books, do the homework," Ali says.
Ali says many other East African immigrants do not have that kind of family support, which is why she is going to be one of GCG's tutors this fall.
Ali says many Somali parents have the mindset that it is the school's responsibility to educate their children, so they don't get involved. She is especially concerned about Somali youth who immigrate to America by themselves, without their parents.
Ali recently took the MCAT and hopes to be a doctor one day. While she herself wasn't a refugee, she is motivated by her memories of seeing Somali refugees in Kenya.
"They had a small hospital, and there's a long line of people standing just to see a doctor. There's a chance those people could come there five days, six days, and not see a doctor," she says. "And, they are really sick."
In his white lab coat, Dr. Neeraj Chepuri examines a wall covered in X-rays. Chepuri is a busy neuroradiologist. He interacts with patients, and is constantly being paged by other physicians, but he still has time to be a mentor with GCG.
In addition to showing a mentee medical procedures he's performing, Chepuri talks about the coursework, grades, and money needed for medical school. He thinks that information often comes as surprise to mentees.
Chepuri says by mentoring, he feels he's doing more than just giving back locally.
"It's also giving back to the world community, because these youth are probably going to wind up providing medical help and assistance back to Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia," says Chepuri.
Chepuri says there is a huge need for health care in East Africa, particularly because of recent natural disasters in the area such as a tsunami and famine.
"Rather than trying to bring everyone from East Africa to another country for health care, it seems like it would make sense to bring health care to East Africa," says Chepuri. "And it would make the most sense if it were people originally from the area, who have a desire to go back there."
Generation for Change and Growth's co-founder, Ali Mahamud, sees the impact of such mentorship in the way students' attitudes change. The evaluations they complete for the program convince him that because of GCG, they see more clearly what is possible.
"Although these kids are from very remote, war-torn regions, they still have dreams. They want to progress in life, and see a light at the end of the tunnel," says Mahamud.
Fifty students are currently involved in the Generation for Change and Growth in the Twin Cities. Though Mahamud, Moallin and other East African volunteers have been funding the nonprofit, they hope to receive money from grants to expand the organization in the future.
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