About Project Faulu (“Succeed”) and the ELO Network

On November 2nd, we were honored to accept the 2018 Showcase Site Award from the ELO Network. To get an inside perspective on the specific work that goes on in our programs, we sat down with Alison Kummer, Student Programs Coordinator at the REC.

Along with being trained in Cultural Competency, Alison has worked in Uganda and South Korea, teaching in a bilingual school setting and working with at-risk populations. Before working at the Refugee Education Center, she worked as paraprofessional in a local Grand Rapids school and also developed curriculum for local after-school programming. She holds a degree is in English Literature & Sociology, is TESOL Certified, and is licensed in Elementary Education.

Q. What is your background that has uniquely suited you for the work you do at the REC?

Having grown up in Italy and Germany, I was exposed to various cultures and education systems early on in my life. As the Student Programs 

Coordinator at the REC, I have the privilege of engaging with students from all around the world, helping to bridge the gap between refugee students, parents, and schools. I’ve been working at the Refugee Education Center for 3 years, and it’s the perfect fit for me!”

Q. The ELO Network’s Showcase Site Award goes to the organization or program that demonstrates dedication and commitment to youth engagement and shows creativity and innovation in programming. Lynn Heemstra, Director of Our Communities Children says, “The REC has shown through STEAM programming to be intentional in your efforts to engage youth from different countries and expose them to quality activities that help them think, learn, engage, and respond.”

Can you tell us more about the ELO Network? 

“The Expanded Learning Opportunities Network (ELO) allows the Refugee Education Center to be in connection with other after-school providers around Grand Rapids. Through ELO Network, organizations can exchange resources, support each other, and receive professional development in the areas of socio-emotional learning and STEAM subjects.

Our relationship with the ELO Network serves as a professional learning community (PLC) that helps us stay up to date with latest strategies and methodologies, as well as keeps us accountable to providing quality services to our students and families.  

Over the past year, our membership with the ELO Network has allowed our program to grow in the ways we incorporate science, technology, engineering, arts, and math into our program curriculum. It has also better informed our programs in promising practices for socio-emotional development.”

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Q. As we work with refugee families, what do you see as parent’s biggest concerns for their children? 

 “When a family moves to a new country, they carry with them their whole world. A person’s cultural construct, value system, sense of belonging, formal & informal education, and societal expectations deeply define their identity. When thrust into a completely new cultural construct, such as Grand Rapids Michigan, parents and their children are challenged with absorbing everything that is valued and acceptable in their new context, while reckoning with what is still essential and sacred within their own cultural identity.  

 Every parent is eager to see their child thrive in life; they want them to succeed at school, complete their education, and grow into their full potential. In their own home country, a parent would know how to fight for their child’s success; but now everything has changed. 

 Often, the chief concern of parents is their own limitation. With a limited knowledge of the American school systems, parental expectations, and cultural values surrounding success, parents often feel overwhelmed and misunderstood. To overcome this enormous challenge, parents need the entire community (educators, administration, staff, and local partners & neighbors) to walk alongside them in this journey, with empathy and respect.”

Q. What are your biggest “aha” moments or bright spots when you see something working well?  

It is amazing how much growth a child experiences when there is an investment of intentional time and long-term relationship with an adult who cares about them. When a volunteer trained through the REC invests in the same child (or group of children) over the course of a year or more, they build a relationship of safety and trust. The intentional time spent focusing on the student’s needs allows students to slow down, deconstruct, problem solve, and think critically.  

When a volunteer is committed to being present, mentoring, and giving each child the tools they need for success, refugee children begin to defy all the odds against them. Their growth then positively affects their family and their community. It is truly a treasure to experience.

Q. For the students in our program, how do you help minimize some of the difficulties they may face?  

 “A big part of our role at the REC is not solely to focus on the academic success of our students, but to journey with them as they confront areas of socio-emotional learning in their young developing selves. 

So much of what we do as children is self-discovery: the way we play & interact with others, our involvement in sports, arts & music — these are all ways of exploring and experimenting with the world around us. As we try out different things, we learn about ourselves — our likes and dislikes, what works for us and what doesn’t. For a child who has a history of trauma, or a family/community surrounded by a history of trauma, the process of self-discovery can often feel dangerous and sometimes impossible.  

Here at the Center, we help students by giving them socio-emotional strategies they will need to interact with the world around them. We talk about triggers, choices, and how to express and manage emotions within social situations, so that they can develop within their own personal journey of self-discovery in a way that feels safe and appropriate for them.”

Q. Why is this cause important to you? Why do you believe in the work we’re doing here at the Refugee Education Center?  

In small ways throughout my life, I’ve known what it’s like to feel like a fish out of water — to be the new kid in school and have to learn a new language and new set of “life-rules. Then, once I felt like I blended in, I needed to figure out what made me stand out —  what made me “me”. I am grateful to the crucial individuals who came to walk with me along the way.  They were patient and kind, and they didn’t treat me like I was “less-than” just because I was learning something new. They didn’t force me to choose one culture over another but allowed me to form my own mixed cultural identity. They expected a lot from me, believed in my potential for success, and believed I was a valuable part of their community.”

“Did you ever have someone who invested in your life and believed in you? This is what every child deserves. West Michigan contains a bounty of resources and individuals with the ability to participate in the growth and development of our community’s children.”

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Growing Superheroes – Benefit Dinner 2018

On October 17th, we gathered together for an evening to celebrate the strengths of young refugees in our community. From the conversations around the dinner table, to the stories of our students and the smiles on their faces as they participated in their superhero performance, it was an evening to remember.

We felt so much support from all of you.  THANK YOU!

We listened to Krishna’s experience of the refugee journey and we were reminded how our diverse backgrounds play an important part in raising up a new  generation of young people.


Students shared with us the many ways they would use their superpowers to create a better world through their superhero personas and we discovered that these powers are strengths they have already as young people. Through the student’s example, we can re-imagine a world where our children’s strengths are used to their fullest potential.


Our young refugees have a wealth of resources and unique backgrounds that shape the way they view and impact the world. By supporting refugee children in education, we empower them to become leaders in our businesses, communities, and in our world.

From early childhood education to high school graduation, you are helping to ensure that our youngest refugees get the support they need. 

Thank you  for strengthening our efforts as we work together to reach more refugee children in our community.


Ps. If you couldn’t attend, but would still like to donate, please visit the link here. 

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Bridging the Gap: Agnes

“I really love working with them. I love my job. You know when you’re doing something you really love, it doesn’t feel like a job. It just feels like you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing.”

Meet Agnes, one of our marvelous community workers! Uniquely fitted for this role, Agnes is a support system for families on a daily basis. For the REC, she acts as an interpreter, connector, and engager who fosters and facilitates a successful relationship between refugee families and education.  

She also serves an important role at our Hands Connected Early Learning Center, working to enroll refugee children under the age of three into an early education program that sets the stage for hope and success. It’s a great fit, because it is also where her son attends.

When Agnes first meets a family, she says that they “…feel very excited. I welcome them with a smile and I show them that I am their sister.” For the families she visits on a day-to-day basis, Agnes is a piece of home, and a source of light to the path refugees must navigate upon their arrival into the U.S. 

She is more than just an interpreter to help families with education enrollment, she makes sure the families feel engaged in the conversation and the process, which is important to creating a sense of community.  

 “When they feel like they have enough support, things go well and it starts to become much easier, especially for those families who don’t speak English.”

As an individual who has walked in the shoes of these children, Agnes knows what is necessary for our refugee neighbors to be successful and supported. She has faced many of the same barriers that they must now overcome. 

 So, what are some of these barriers refugees face? 


When Agnes arrived with her parents to the United States 10 years ago, she did not speak an ounce of English past “how are you,” which she says is just what you’re taught to say. Agnes says communication is a primary concern because not being able to speak the same language makes it considerably more difficult to succeed, and it becomes the most challenging, prolonged barrier to overcome.   

But because Agnes is fluent in 4 different languages (Swahili, Kinyarwanda, Kirundi, and now English), not only is she able to interpret for a large population that we serve, but she can also provide comfort for families by being able to engage them. She dissolves the disconnect and builds a bridge by taking them to the schools their children are going to be attending, enrolling them, allowing them to tour and meet the principle, and setting up bus transportation. She specializes in school-related concerns over the long term, making sure they are in the proper courses, and ensuring that parents understand and attend parent-teacher conferences.

Education Across Cultures.  

With that, Agnes also says it is important to understand that education systems across countries and cultures can be vastly different. Hearing that your child who was in 5th  grade in their home country is going to be in 7th grade in America can be confusing or difficult to hear, so it is important to be empathetic and provide support. This speaks to part of the REC’s mission to bridge the gap as we work to not only welcome but further seek to understand each other in order to grow as a community.  

 “At that moment, when a family is feeling very discouraged, I step out of my boundaries. I give them details and examples of my life. Like, hey I had to face this too, and now look at me.”

For most of these students, extra time and support become vital factors of success. So, Agnes points families towards the after-school tutoring program offered at the REC, describing it as a powerful tool in helping further develop the language and academic skills that are crucial to keeping on track.  Agnes says this extra support would have been instrumental for her success when she came over here as a refugee student.

“When I arrived here, I didn’t have all of this support that I give from the REC, that I see all these kids getting from us. When I started working with the REC, I could see a big change. Refugees are getting more support than they used to.. so this is very supportive — to have someone go in and enroll you in school and then you’re able to come here and do your after-school homework.”

Students come to the after-school program to receive help on their homework that they may not otherwise receive. Volunteers take the time to transport students and work with them 1:1, as well as provide tutoring that is tailored to their abilities in reading, writing, and math. 

 Agnes believes there is something special about working within this community. Providing support through the REC creates change and promotes growth. 

 “I have always been a people person. I was born this way. I love people and I love help. Helping this community means a lot to me.”



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Standing In Hope

Over the last few weeks, two students have become fast friends. This past year, Zubeda, a second grader, and her brothers started to attend our after school program for homework help. What Zubeda found was friendship.  Fatima, a Kindergartener, also started to attend the after-school tutoring program this year. Although they come from different countries, their parents share a similar story. Both families settled in Grand Rapids after seeking refuge from war in their home countries. The two girls found a common bond when they started coming to the Refugee Education Center.  

The other day, as they put their arms around each other, their expression became an example of what we see daily at the Refugee Education Center: students finding a safe place to learn and belong, and parents finding a hope for their children’s future.  

So what does it look like to stand in hope for refugees in 2018?  

Although numbers for resettlement to the US have dwindled in the past year, Grand Rapids has a strong presence of refugees creating a new life here. It currently is home to more than 25,000 refugees. As the news headlines transition away from the crisis abroad, the need still remains to support refugees here at home. So as we work together to stand in hope for refugees in our community, let us not stand by on the sidelines but stand in the gap.   

At the Refugee Education Center, we were able to provide educational support to over 300 students in 2017. We have witnessed children excelling in their grades at school, overcoming language barriers, and  going on to graduate. Yet, we also understand that without an environment of safety, a child cannot learn. So while providing educational support through course catch-up and English Language support, the Center also creates a space of hope, peace, and solidarity.

Standing in hope for refugees in Grand Rapids looks like creating support systems that work for our newest neighbors. It looks like hiring refugees in your business or visiting a refugee-owned business. It looks like creating a seat at the decision-making table. At The Refugee Education Center, it looks like tutoring a child or supporting our work financially.  

 So, let us choose to enter into new stories of hope right here in West Michigan. Let us choose to invest in the life of a child so he or she can reach their dreams to become our future doctors, lawyers, and educators.  

 The image of Zubeda and Fatima standing together reminds us of the hope refugee families seek when they come here. So while countries continue to be at war with each other, let us continue to stand in hope in our own community, in every way we can.  

Stand with us… in hope.  

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A few months ago, we wrote about one student of ours named Tula. Well this year is his big year to graduate from high school and head out into the world. Last night he did just that. With a glimmer of excitement and pride in his eyes, he walked across the stage to get his diploma. 

For the refugee students and families who have worked so hard to start a new life here in the US — having overcome difficulties with language and gaps in education, transitions in culture and new friendships – it is a milestone accomplishment to graduate from school. 
And here is where Tula’s story comes full circle. Originally from Bhutan, Tula and his family moved to United States 4 years ago from a refugee camp in Nepal.  That year, he started coming to The Refugee Education Center with his brother.  With a determination to work hard and succeed and the support of volunteer tutors, he hit the ground running. The following summer, Tula entered into our Leadership Program, which stretched him to see a larger picture for how he could be influential in helping others.
“He was funny and sarcastic, but always willing to learn,” recalls Susan, our Executive Director. Since that time, Tula has volunteered during the summer to teach other newly arrived refugee students. Last September, he spoke at our 10 year Celebration and organized a dance for the performance.  
Tula graduated alongside two other REC volunteers, Cat and Rachel. Together they represent the future leadership of our community. They understand the value of education lies not in acquiring personal knowledge, but in how information can empower each of us to make our community a better place for all. 
To all the students graduating this year, we congratulate you and wish you all the best in the years to come!
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Embracing the Journey

For Arezo, English was her 5th language to learn when she arrived in the US. As a young girl of 12 years, Arezo had a lot to learn in a new country, not just English. Adjusting to a new culture, navigating the school system, and having to translate for her mother, Arezo had to take on more responsibility than most 12-year-olds. She has big dreams for her future — she wants to be a Doctor. When we asked her where she gets her big dreams from, she said:

“From my mom! When we were going to come here, my mom did it all by herself. She went to Istanbul and she talked for us so we could come here.  She is a strong woman, but now she is sick. If I were a doctor I could help my mom get better. She is the best ever!”

On any typical day her warm smile greets you when she walks through the doors of the Refugee Education Center. With the help of her volunteers, Arezo has been excelling at school. She is a straight “A” student, and making friends everyday.

This summer, Arezo and her family will celebrate their 2nd anniversary at the Refugee Education Center. With your help we can honor her journey and help more students like Arezo to reach their dreams, but it will take hard work. This year alone, you have helped us reach more refugee families than ever before. We are tutoring 68 students on a weekly basis, our highest number to date. The Refugee Education Center has also served over 700 refugee parents and students though our services. Yet, there are still a lot of students who need our support.

Support of refugees in the community happens when we all come together and unify around the cause. For all refugee families in West Michigan to feel welcomed and to thrive, we have to be intentional. Thankfully, our community has been a welcoming community for refugee families for over 35 years. Yet we know that Planting roots in a new place is just not the end of a journey but a new beginning. We believe that now is more important than ever to show up in the life of another and to walk along side their journey. Will you come journey with us?

As always, Thank You.

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Will You Take The Next Step With Us?

Last month, we hosted “Do Good Well,” an event where we addressed the global and national issues that impact refugees here in West Michigan. Over 130 of you came together to learn and discuss how we can better support our refugee neighbors.

Now more than ever, it is important that we show up for refugees living in our community. We have been taking the time to listen to all of you and see how we can best support each other as we work to make West Michigan a welcoming place.

At a recent Refugee Education Center parent meeting, one parent expressed:

Our children need to know that they are safe here. We are no longer living in a war torn country, but our children still struggle to feel safe here. So we need teachers, parents, and other children to make an intentional effort to help us feel safe.”

We are so thankful that refugees live in our community, but we still have a lot of work to do. And we need your help. We want to invite all of you to continue to support refugees in our community by taking action today. 

Here are a few ways you can be a part of the work at the Refugee Education Center:

  • Give monthly: Your commitment of $25 per month provides for one child to attend our summer program. Here they gain valuable socio-emotional support, English Language skills, and so much more. Can you give up one coffee per week to invest in the life of a child? 
  • Create a social fundraiser: Get some friends together and have a car wash, bake sale, or participate in the 5th/3rd River Bank Run! Use your passion for action. Together, you can make a difference.
  • Invite a small group over to your home and we will come be a part of the discussion with you. We would be happy to help you spread the word to your friends and family.

Your financial contributions have already helped tutor 58 students this school year! Thank you for your commitment.

For each and every thing you do, Thank You!


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The Refugee Resettlement Process

Based on some feedback we received from our last event, we wanted to share with you an informative and concise infographic from the UNHCR on refugee resettlement. Here at the Refugee Education Center, we continue to work towards creating a welcoming and supportive community for all who call West Michigan their home. We encourage you to take a moment to brainstorm about how you can support the 25,000 refugees already living in West Michigan.

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Welcoming Refugees in 2017

Over the past couple of months, we have received numerous calls and emails from individuals in our community interested in supporting refugees in our community. Many ask how we can make our community a welcoming place for newcomers. As we kick off the New Year we asked several of our refugee friends and colleagues to share their thoughts on what we can do to welcome refugees in 2017.

Abdi Osman:

“First, they need help and guidance. Refugees go through a lot that most people can’t imagine. Those fortunate enough to come to the United States come seeking peace, equality, freedom, and justice. It’s not their choice to come here. They have been forced. I mean, no one really wants to leave their native country. So when we see a refugee family we should treat them with respect and give them a warm welcome and support them with what we have. We need to put our differences aside to help them so they can also help us—learn their ways and help teach your ways.”

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Be There for Refugee Children in 2016

When refugee children enter our community, they bring with them a distinct set of gifts. These talents and perspectives are often hidden behind layers of cultural misunderstandings and language differences. The Refugee Education Center seeks to peel back these layers and unleash the potential of refugee children in West Michigan. For the past 10 years, we have provided education and youth development services to newly arrived refugee children and their families. We focus on meeting the unique needs of refugee children in our community so that they can succeed in school and in life.

We have seen the power of education to transform lives. A young gentleman from Bhutan recently shared his experience with guests at our 10th birthday celebration. Tula began coming to our summer program several years ago. He had recently come with his family from a refugee camp in Nepal. His education had been interrupted and he had limited English but he was determined to learn. Our staff and volunteers worked with Tula that summer and throughout the coming year to learn English and adjust to life in the United States. The following year, Tula participated in our summer leadership program and this spring, Tula will graduate.

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