Distant Relatives

Rochester Program Strengthens Roots for Immigrant Youth

Gardeners know that moving a plant from one area to another can cause something called “transplant shock,” stress or damage to the plant from the move. Plants moved from one spot to another often need a period of time to acclimate to their new environment. For the move to be a success, a variety of factors must be considered.

It’s not so different for those who uproot and move to a foreign country. Imagine the culture shock of having to get used to a completely new way of life, language, beliefs, and expectations in a place where almost everyone around you has been there from birth.

Now imagine you are a young adult trying to assimilate yourself into the “wilds” of an American middle school. Your parents are relics from a completely different culture; their influence on you is strained by their own struggles toward understanding this foreign place. How can you participate in the community without proper guidance? How do you learn what success looks like when so many people around you don’t look or speak like you, and when you don’t understand this new way of life?

“Most of these kids are first-generation Americans, and they don’t
know how to get involved in school. Their parents don’t speak the
language, and the children have heavy accents. They get picked
on in school and shy away from participating in normal school
functions,” says Said Mumin, executive director of Distant Relatives,
an after-school educational program.

Many families from foreign cultures are very structured and
disciplined. Yet, often, these kids think they know more than their
parents and don’t relate when their parents try to tell them how things
are done, because the parents aren’t as integrated into the new
culture. When those children leave home each day, they become just
like any other child their age. To succeed, they need to acclimate,
says Mumin. They need guidance from someone they can relate to
and trust until they feel comfortable in their new environment.

Through Distant Relatives, Mumin is encouraging success through
athletics and mentorship. The program began in 2008 when a
group of young Somali students approached Mumin to coach them
in a basketball tournament called Hoops for Hope. Mumin helped
fundraise for the team, joining with Rochester Somali businesses to
provide jerseys for the kids and transportation to the tournament. It
was a great success.

Passionate about being a mentor, Mumin saw the possibilities. He
wanted to show these young people how to be successful in
basketball, school, and life, so he researched the steps to establish
a nonprofit organization with a mission of providing access to safe,
educational after-school activities in a comfortable environment.
Once he had the proper documentation and tax status, he
approached more donors and expanded the program, which was
originally named Horseed (prounced “hor-said”), which means “to
lead by example.” The Rochester Area Foundation gave Mumin an
in-kind grant for office space and connections within the community
that he uses to reach out to other organizations for expertise and
fundraising. In 2014, the foundation also provided Distant
Relatives with a cash grant.

The program is designed to “reach these kids through something
they seem to enjoy, which is competition,” says Mumin. For boys,
the program offers basketball and soccer, for girls, swimming.
Mumin and his volunteers coach the teams, building trust and
bonding with the kids. “By coaching and tutoring, we become role
models and show them how to join the larger community,” he says.

Tutoring is also part of the program, although the current tutoring
center only has capacity for 15 kids at a time. The center has a
phone, Internet, and five computers students can use for homework.
In the program, college students mentor high school students, while
high school students mentor middle school students. A hierarchy of
leadership is established that creates a path to successful
integration for everyone. “The program is about building character.
When they have that character built into them, they can be a help
to their family, friends, and community,” says Mumin.

In the future, Mumin wants to expand the tutoring program, but, to
do so, he will need a licensed teacher willing to volunteer his or her
time. Transportation is the biggest obstacle, though, since the
tutoring center is not located in school district buildings. The
program needs a larger van, so more kids can get rides home after
tutoring sessions or athletic events.

Today, Distant Relatives serves 120 children and partners with 15
volunteers. Daily, Mumin sees the difference it is making in the lives
of the kids and their families as well as the community. “I want to
connect people in my cultural community to the Rochester
community. I want to be a bridge between the two. We all are
distant relatives,” says Mumin. “Every human is capable of
exceeding any limitation that is perceived. It doesn’t have anything
to do with your race, your background, your culture, your religion.
What we do is provide a blueprint to these kids and say these are
people who look, talk, walk, act like you and who have succeeded
in this country—and you can do it, too.”