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Immigrant CAN guides teens adjust to American life

by Elisa Eiguren
Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Ali Yusuf and Ahmed Said discuss their goal for their new project titled ICAN, which aims to help immigrant youth in the St. Cloud community. / Candace Rojo, [email protected]

When Ali Yusuf immigrated to America from Somalia in 1998, he was 19 years old and understood no English.

Fourteen years later, he has a degree in international relations from St. Cloud State University and works as a claims representative in the Social Security office in St. Cloud. He isn’t selfish with his success.

Yusuf also is executive director of the Immigrant Community Access Network, a St. Cloud organization that aims to teach immigrants that anything is possible. The group had its grand opening July 7.

“If you don’t have a vision of possibility in your life, you won’t succeed,” Yusuf said.

The organization’s main objective is to provide a mentoring and tutoring program for immigrant youths ages 12-18. In September, Yusuf said they plan to have about 20-30 students in the program, which will evaluate students’ academic standing and provide support if they are struggling. Yusuf said they will keep track of each student’s progress throughout the semester.

Ahmed Said, public relations director for Immigrant CAN, believes he and Yusuf can be good role models.

“A Somali prophet said it is easier to straighten a tree when it’s young,” Said said.

One of the most glaring needs of immigrant students is to accumulate proper language skills, said Bruce Watkins, superintendent of St. Cloud school district.

St. Cloud schools have programs to address speech and vocabulary needs. Jumpstart helps students with limited or no English-speaking skills acclimate to American schools, while the English Learners program assists those who have a better grasp on the language and culture.

Since the district implemented these programs, Watkins said, immigrants have had a much higher rate of success.

Any form of help with language acquisition is beneficial in education and a program like Immigrant CAN will probably be positive for immigrant students, he said.

The idea for Immigrant CAN spawned from the need Yusuf said he has seen in the community to help immigrants adjust to the American culture and conquer the language barrier. Yusuf said he thought he could be an inspiration because he has firsthand knowledge of the hardships of immigration.

“In the St. Cloud community we have a lot of immigrants from many countries in Africa: Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia and they have a hard time adjusting,” he said. “It’s a culture shock ... the language, not knowing how to use anything from the bathroom to the stove.”

A lot of misconceptions stem from cultural differences, Yusuf said, which is why Immigrant CAN will encourage immigrants to be more engaged in the larger St. Cloud community, and host events and lectures to create a better understanding of African traditions and history.

Immigrant CAN also will educate the immigrant community about American customs and practices through seminars and classes. The language

barrier is an immense problem in the immigrant community, and understanding English is important to access common public services such as health care, Said said.

Yusuf said preventative healthcare is a new concept for many immigrants who are used to only seeing a doctor when they are very sick. Healthcare is an especially sensitive issue because many people feel uncomfortable being cared for by someone who is unfamiliar with their culture.

Through mentoring and coaching, Yusuf said he hopes to ease the strenuous process of adapting to a new lifestyle. He wants to teach youths that small choices such as the way they dress are as imperative to success as their education, and in America they can be whoever they want to be.

“The easiest thing to adapt to is the wrong lifestyle,” he said. “If you are lying back and expect the world to change, you are dreaming ... you have to work hard.”

Immigrant CAN is a non-profit organization, and Yusuf and Said are volunteering their time. They have an office in Waite Park, which is being remodeled and furnished with computers, but Yusuf said the space is only temporary until they have the resources to move to a larger location with classroom and teaching facilities.

Although they are starting small with only a few programs they have plans to continue developing and expanding.

Said said sometimes he can’t sleep at night because his head is so full of ideas.

“We hope to be the spark that starts the fire,” he said.


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