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For Somali families, a bridge between school and home

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Mohamed Abass translates for Somali parents.
Mohamed Abass translates for newly immigrated Somali parents during the Waalidow Indhaha Furr session at Andersen United Community School on Dec. 2, 2015 in Minneapolis.
Vanessa Nyarko | MPR News

A year-old program is helping newly immigrated Somali parents overcome cultural differences to become an important part of their children's education. 

Waalidow Indhaha Furr, Somali for "parents open your eyes," was created by the Somali American Parent Association in January to address the barriers Somali parents struggle with in the American educational system. 

"We know the child is learning, and that the teacher is ready, but who is teaching the parent?" said Mohammed Abass, a family and community liaison at Andersen Unity Community School in the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis, where Waalidow Indhaha Furr is held.

The six-week program is offered for free, with costs covered through a grant from the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement.

Abass said education in the United States is totally different from the Horn of Africa, where parents are not typically involved. He said it's extremely important — particularly at schools with large immigrant populations — for parents to learn about the support and strategies they have at their disposal.

The challenge is especially marked if the parents have had no formal education themselves — a circumstance quite often the case given the widespread destruction of schools, universities and libraries during the Somali civil war.

The program at Andersen United targets Somali parents who have only been in the United States for two years or fewer.

Newcomer parents "are so ready and excited to learn," said Annie Heideman, a family and community liaison who facilitates the Waalidow Indhaha Furr sessions at Andersen United. "They just want to throw themselves to every opportunity because everything is new."

Newly immigrated parents learn to help their kids
Newly immigrated Somali parents attend the Waalidow Indhaha Furr session at Andersen United Community School on Dec. 2, 2015 in Minneapolis.
Vanessa Nyarko | MPR News

The curriculum offers simple strategies for parents, such as not using a cellphone when a child is doing homework or the importance of designating one area for quiet study time. Other topics include how to recognize mental health problems.

During a recent session, social workers faced a room of new Somali immigrants and gave suggestions for asking children about the school day or for offering encouragement. When one social worker asked how parents can congratulate their children when they do a good job at school, Somali mother Amina Sidow smiled and gave a thumbs up.

Sidow, recently joined the program at Anderson because, she said, she wanted to learn more about how to interact with her children's teachers. 

"Back home we didn't have to interact too much with teachers, but here we do," she said.

Sidow said her children are excited she is in the program because she stops by their classes after the sessions. "It's like their mom is still in school with them," she said.

Parental involvement is key to a student's ability to adjust to school in a new home, Heideman said. Because students spend more time at home than at school, she says, it's essential for parents to know how to help them. 

The surge in confidence among the parents is encouraging. During the first session of their program at Andersen United, Mohamed Mohamud, SAPA's executive director, and his staff ask the parents whether they believe they can help their children, even though they cannot read or write. "In the beginning 99 percent say no, but at the end [of the training] 99 percent say yes," he said.

Immigrant parents also feel insecure about their ability to support their child's learning because they don't speak English at home, Heideman said.

"You are your child's first teacher," she said. "For a lot of parents that is very evident, but for parents who are coming from somewhere else who maybe don't know how to read or write even in their first language, that is a very scary thing."

SAPA is interested in partnering with additional schools to offer Waalidow Indhaha Furr in the future, said Asma Bulale, the community engagement specialist at SAPA. 

They currently promote the program through their partner organizations, but they plan on doing their own community outreach next year as well as holding classes at the African Development Center, Bulale said.