Somali refugee gives back to Syracuse refugee community

Hussein Yerow grew up in a refugee camp, but that hasn't stopped him from improving his literacy skills and helping others in the community.

As he walks around North Side Learning Center, Hussein Yerow, a former refugee, is stopped several times.

“Hussein, where are my pencils?” a volunteer says.

“Hussein, remember to wait for me!” his little brother yells.

Yerow and seven of his family members are part of the nearly 1,100 Somali refugees who have arrived in Syracuse between 2001 and 2011. Yerow's parents and brother, Muhammed, were forced to flee from Somalia in 1992 during the civil war. They walked to Kenya, eventually settling in Dadaab, one of the largest refugee camps in the world, which houses nearly 244,000 displaced people. Hussein and four of his brothers were born there.

Photo: Jamie Jenson
Yerow works in a cramped office at the North Side Learning Center

Like many refugees, Yerow is unsure of his actual age. His birth certificate says he was born on January 1, 1992, which would make him 25 years old. According to his parents, he’s only 19. Yerow said this is common due to miscommunication between the refugees and their translators.

“My parents, they spoke a different language than Somali, and their interpreter was Somali, so they misunderstood when they were translating about the age of the kids,” he said.

Life in Dadaab was hard, Yerow said. Yerow and his family had to build a house to live in. They cut down trees in order to make the frame and walls.

Food, too, was scarce. Families would go to the United Nations distribution center nearby to get food, but it was never enough.

Some families would then leave the camp to go buy more food at stores, which meant turning over half of their supplies from the United Nations to the store owners, in addition to paying for the goods. This was the only way to ensure the family had enough food.

Yerow's father made money building the houses for other refugees. Yerow's mother would “paint” the structures with mud. Yerow himself was expected to stay home to take care of his brothers, so he was unable to attend school.

“Only my oldest brother went to school,” he said.

Yerow said he remembers the day in 2009 when his parents told him they had applied for refugee status and had been accepted; they were moving to the United States to seek a better life.  

“We were excited, but we never knew the United States existed," he siad. "We didn’t even know that a world existed. We had no idea where we were going." 

The day they left Kenya was the first day Yerow had ever been on a plane. The flight was long, and when they arrived in Cleveland, the ground was covered with snow.

“I never knew snow fell from the sky,” he said.

The Yerows stayed in Cleveland for several months, but after learning they had family in Syracuse, they decided to relocate.

This was a difficult time for Hussein and his brothers. They had never been to school and they didn't speak English.

Yerow's documented age--19 at the time--also put him at a disadvantage. Once a student turns 21, they can no longer attend high school. The Syracuse City School District didn’t have a special program for refugee and immigrant students. The district suggested Yerow pursue his GED diploma since he couldn’t earn all of the credits he needed in order to graduate on time.

Jackie LeRoy, the director of the district’s ENL, World Languages, and Bilingual Education program, said the district has since created a program dedicated specifically to students like Yerow, who have had little or no schooling prior to enrolling.

“The district’s one-year Newcomer Program prepares them for their future. The students meet with their English as a New Language teacher for half the day, and then they are with their peers in specials such as physical education for the rest of the day,” she said.

Yerow started studying for his GED test, taking classes through the Syracuse Educational Opportunity Center during the school year.

He has also recently been hired at North Side Learning Center, an organization that helps Syracuse’s refugee population develop their English and literacy skills. There, at the center, he met his mentors, Mark Cass, the organization’s director, and Dr. Yusuf Soule, the board president.

“Hussein is one of the most motivated, hardworking people I’ve ever met. He’s so driven,” Cass said.

Soule agrees.

“He’s the most wonderful person with a great heart," Soule said. "He would do anything for anybody." 

Yerow values the relationship he has with both men.

“They have guided me down the right path. If I was without them, I couldn’t have done as well. I couldn’t study my education or get a job,” he said.

Yerow has left an impact on them, too: They nominated him for the Ruth J. Colvin and Frank C. Laubach Award for Adult Learner Excellence through ProLiteracy, a national organization that advocates for adult literacy initiatives. The award celebrates the adult learner’s ability to gain literacy skills.                                                                  

A few weeks ago, ProLiteracy reached out to Yerow to tell him he won the award. Hussein and Mark will travel to Minnesota in September, where Hussein will accept the award at The ProLiteracy Conference on Adult Literacy.

Hussein realizes he has a long path to travel in terms of his education. He dreams of getting his GED and taking classes at Onondaga Community College.

“I want to be a social worker," he said. "I want to help people around my neighborhood to be friends, to be more connected, to be active." 

This desire to help others is what he does best at North Side Learning Center.

“My favorite thing about working here is helping people--making them smile and helping them if they need something. If I make one person happy, then I’m happy.”

As if on cue, the office door opens and another worker enters. “Hussein, we need you.” Hussein smiles, gets up and goes out to do more of what he loves.

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