GARDEN CITY, Idaho — Refugee families who settle into the Treasure Valley face challenges most of us can't comprehend, but luckily, there's a resource helping the youngest newly minted Idahoans feel a little bit more at home.
The REACH (Refugees Empowered to Achieve) Program offers an opportunity to reach out and mentor refugee youth ages 15 to 24 on a consistent basis.
"When families arrive through the refugee program, the traditional services are really focused more on the adults. You know, they're the ones who are gonna get jobs and kind of help the family become more self-sufficient. But often it's really the kids and the young people in the family who are going to play a really big role in their families moving forward and I think families sacrifice a lot so that their kids have opportunities when they come here," said Idaho Office for Refugees Service Coordination Program Manager Christina Bruce-Bennion.
The REACH program is a collaboration of several different non-profits and organizations and mentors that spend four to six hours per month with refugee youth.
"They do often come with extra challenges that we try to help provide support both academically and just in connecting them to the community and long-term integration," said Bruce-Bennion.
The young refugees are paired up with volunteer mentors who, in many cases, can relate to their situation as several of them were refugees themselves.
"This has been a really good place for me to just come here and spend time with the youth and play different activities with them and just try to create as much impact as I can," said REACH mentor and former refugee Fredrick Shema.
Fredrick's unique perspective and experience have allowed him to help several children.
"Having to overcome all these things like trauma from, I mean personally, from what I've come through, and then having to move here is tough, a new life, fresh, and still trying to keep going, and then in the middle of a pandemic, it's really hard. It's hard for some of these kids. I'm just grateful to be here to support them in any way I can," said Shema.
The REACH program has been around for a little over three years, but the COVID-19 pandemic forced them to change their original plan.
"We really did the first big pivot last winter when the kids were all learning online and the real barriers that they faced, especially if English was not their first language to what that looked like, and for some kids there wasn't that support at home or they had parents working. We did that initial piece of providing in-person academic support during the school year and then just really trying to keep the kids connected to school and feel like they weren't alone," said Bruce-Bennion.
And as for their summer program, that came about as a direct result of the kids wanting to stay together while school was out.
"We play basketball, we play a lot of board games and stuff, we do art and stuff, and sometimes we go on field trips," said Mohammad and Rahaf, two Syrian refugees who are taking part in the program.
Most importantly, the REACH program helps these kids who may be a little scared or lost in their new world feel a bit more at home.
"From the first moment they arrive here, they have a big smile on their face. They're willing to participate in whatever activities you have planned, and they're just a joy to work with, you know? They've impacted me more than I feel I've impacted them over the summer so it's just been great," smiled Shema.
"Kids are kids, and I think regardless of where they come from and even if they have extra challenges or barriers, they love to play, they love to do art, they love to try new things and just have a lot of fun, so it's been great to work with them," said Bruce-Bennion.
And for refugee youth in the Treasure Valley that might not know about the program, Mohammad and Rahaf want you to know "that you should come here!"
If you or someone you know is interested in joining or volunteering to be a mentor for the REACH program, click here.