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Refugees Find Help in Utah Running Club


Ubah Yusuf, center, runs with volunteers in the Athletics United program in Logan, Utah. (Eli Lucero/The Herald Journal via AP)
Refugees Find Help in Utah Running Club
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Educators and officials in Utah have been concerned about the effects of COVID-19-related restrictions and closures on children’s education. But activists say the closures are hardest for those who were already struggling in school: local refugees and immigrants.

Halima Ali is an activist for the state’s Somali refugee community. She noted that even under normal conditions, refugee children are often in need. Their parents are new to the United States, and they do not know our education system, she said. In some cases, the parents may have had little schooling, so COVID-19 made the situation worse.

Ali and her family immigrated from Somalia long before the start of the coronavirus health crisis. She said it was a struggle to feel at ease in their new homeland. For many families where the parents did not receive much education, it can be even worse.

This was the case for Salman Yusef, whose family immigrated to Utah in 2018.

“When I came here, I didn’t know how to read and write,” he said. “And I was learning, but then COVID-19 came. And it still is hard for me to read and write.”

But a local nonprofit group helped Yusef find his way, both in the classroom and as a runner. Mike and Kristi Spence launched Athletics United as a running club after they found that many refugee children needed help with their schoolwork. Their hope was to unite the community and make children more physically active.

Mowlid Nur, left, and Ubah Yusuf go for a run during an Athletics United event in Logan, Utah
Mowlid Nur, left, and Ubah Yusuf go for a run during an Athletics United event in Logan, Utah

The group used to hold tutoring sessions two times a week at the public library in Logan, Utah. But those meetings were halted in March because of measures designed to slow the spread of COVID-19. Library officials have yet to let private groups back into the building.

Like every other industry, Athletics United had to think differently to meet the new rules on physical distancing. Mike Spence told The Associated Press that the past three years have been a very important time for the group. He said it has used word-of-mouth and friendships to help with individual student’s needs.

For many refugees, language barriers are the root of many problems. Spence, for example, helps tutor Yusef once a week because there are not enough teachers for all the students.

“Teachers sometimes are not available for you, because they’ve got meetings,” he said. “They got other things to do, too. You can’t really stay after school because of the COVID-19 stuff … but before, when we needed to get help after school, but it was not enough, you would still get help from the program.”

Frank Schofield heads the Logan City School District. He said the push to get students to build relationships with teachers was important to creating trust. He said this is similar to how Athletics United operates. The club has served the Logan community for years and proved helpful to refugees and immigrants, or anyone who needs help.

Schofield added that, “if we don’t have in-person, face-to-face learning, we know that those challenges are greater for those families because of a lack of access to technology in many cases.”

Providing computers and other technology to students helps, but the system is not perfect.

Yusef’s cousin Mowlid Nur has been with the group for a long time. The two attended Logan High School together. He said that finding extra help can be difficult and often depends on the teacher.

“It’s just always, ’If you have any question or anything, send me an email,” he said. “It’s only through email, and when I email, you never know how long they might take them to respond. It might take days, hours, minutes, however long, and it depends on your teacher.”

Yusef’s niece Sabrin attends Thomas Edison Charter School-South. She said while it was a similar struggle at first, the school was able to add two new tutors to help.

In the past four weeks, Spence has started up more running groups. The club used to meet at Ellis Elementary School. Spence and several volunteers now meet two times a week in two different locations. He said this gives the children something to look forward to and a chance to get together in as safe an environment as possible.

I’m Gregory Stachel.

Kat Webb reported on this story for AP news agency. Gregory Stachel adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

club n. a group of people who meet to participate in an activity (such as a sport or hobby)

tutor n. a teacher who works with one student

library n. a place where books, magazines, and other materials (such as videos and musical recordings) are available for people to use or borrow

challenge n. a difficult task or problem: something that is hard to do

access n. a way of being able to use or get something

cousin n. a child of your uncle or aunt

respond v. to say or write something as an answer to a question or request

niece n. a daughter of your brother or sister

locationn. a place or position

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