Amid debates over immigration and admittance of refugees to the United States, a local center continues its mission of eight years: helping refugees and their children become a part of the Eastern Washington family.
The Family Learning Center sits in two apartment units at the Central Park Apartments in Kennewick. Rooms inside are converted into make-shift classrooms, with paintings from students and world maps hanging on the walls.
Aya Sweidan, 18, has attended after-school activities here for eight months, when her family first came to the Tri-Cities.
“You're always scared something will happen. Someone will attack you,” she says. She’s talking about the Syrian civil war her family escaped in her hometown. Her family first fled from Syria to Jordan for more than three years. Two years of that time was spent applying for refugee status in the United States.
“My uncle died in the war,” Sweidan says. “He was shot, and he died. [He] was newly married about five months and he has a daughter. She is two months…she is without father now.”
Most of Swidan’s immediate family made the long, difficult journey to Eastern Washington, faced with learning a new language and culture.
The Family Learning Center, a nonprofit, helps students such as Sweidan and their families in the adjustment process.
“We all kind of find each other,” smiles director Theresa Roosendaal. “It's a joy to serve them and to see them grow in this new place.”
Roosendaal helps oversee programs benefitting about 100 school-aged kids and 60 adults. Founded in 2008 through Roosendaal’s church, the program later expanded into a nonprofit through the help of donations, other churches, and grants.
Students at the center can receive help on homework, practice speaking English, or create art.
Adults can attend ESL and citizenship classes toward gaining more permanent residential status.
“I do my homework, and I got good grade,” explains Tho Paw, a 17-year-old high school student. “I learn more.”
Paw was born in a refugee camp in Thailand when her parents fled war in Myanmar. She arrived in Tri-Cities about eight years ago.
“Everything was different,” recalls Paw. “And I don't actually like it at first, but then later I started to get used to it.”
The biggest difference — food.
“If you eat more of the food here, then you'll start liking this kind of food better than Thailand food,” she laughs.
Paw is now officially a U.S. citizen. Her father went through the process with help of the Family Learning Center; her mother still only has a green card.
Paw’s parents both work labor jobs, and her older brother is in college. She says the brunt of errands requiring English falls on her shoulders.
“I know more English than I know my language now!” she says.
Paw still receives occasional help on homework at the center, but also volunteers time helping other students more recently arrived in the U.S.
Other Family Center ‘graduates’ also pitch in.
“We came here, we got a lot of help,” says Daoud Kuwa, a Sudanese refugee living in the Tri-Cities for 13 years. “The same as they help me, I try to help them as much as I can.”
However, through the many success stories, some at the center can’t help but feel concern amid President Donald Trump’s executive orders, which temporarily restrict most refugees from coming to the U.S.
“It's more tough knowing that there are more kids who aren't going to get to come, from countries which have experienced horrible things,” explains Roosendaal. “[Parents’] number one reason is to give hope and a future to their children.”
“I hope there's refugees still coming here to the Tri-City,” adds Paw. “My family are successful because of [the Family Learning Center] too. We have a house, go to school, everything is good.”
Politics aside, center staff and volunteers say they remain driven to continue helping refugees already living here.
“Whoever's life I get to touch today is my motivation,” says Roosendaal. “We want to serve them because that's what Jesus would do…that goes for Christians, Buddhists, Muslims.”
Back in one of the study rooms Thursday evening, Aya Sweidan reviews vocabulary with a tutor.
“My dream is to be pharmacist,” she explains with a smile.
And ultimately — return home to a safer Syria.
“I miss my sister, my family there. And I want to go back…I wish some day.”
The Family Learning Center says because of high attention on current refugee issues, it has a waiting list for volunteers, but still encourages people to sign up.
Roosendaal adds, helping refugees is simply one way to help those in need within the community.
“Get to know your neighbor. There are people who are immigrants in this community who are not refugees,” she explains. “And everyone has a story, so get to know people's stories, because when we personalize things, you'll tend to look at some of these political issues maybe differently.”
The Family Learning Center offers information and service through its Facebook page and website.
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