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Refugees & Robots: Church Helps Young Immigrants Find American Dream

03-09-2017
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Refugee teens learn computer skills
Refugee teens learn computer skills

DES MOINES, Iowa Resettling in a new country can be daunting, especially when it's halfway around the world from home.   

Louisa Irankunda was just seven years old when her family fled war in Africa and resettled in Des Moines, Iowa. 

"When I came here everybody was different, treated me different, I felt like an outcast," Louisa told CBN News.

She spoke no English, and was far away from the life she was used to growing up in a town of only Burundians where she would fetch water in the woods and carry it home. 
 
"I didn't really know what America was, but all I heard was that it was wonderful and that money grew out of the trees," said Louisa.

Tough First Years in America

Her first years in the country proved challenging. 
 
"It was very tough," remembered Louisa. "They would bully me because when I came here I didn't have hair because they said we should shave it off."

Nancy Mwirotsi, an African native living in Des Moines, noticed how the refugees resettling in the city struggled, particularly the young girls.

"I realized that we really need to start a unique program to reach out to the girls and really let them know that we are here for them," said Mwirotsi.

Mwirotsi decided to start a dance class for young refugee girls, and quickly noticed an improvement in attitude. 
 
"I started working with refugee students, and I realized we have a great opportunity to impact low-income students," said Mwirotsi.

Following that success, she looked for bigger ways to empower kids, and that's when God put coding on her heart. "Here I was with this ambitious dream of teaching kids how to program computers and we had no place, and God's been good, because you know when he gives you a task, you know what he does? He gives you the things to complete them," she said.

'Pursuit of Innovation' Is Born

Nancy reached out to a couple of businesses and places in the area to host the classes, but the first place to respond and open its doors was Zion Lutheran Evangelical Church. She then found a volunteer in computer science from the church to teach the program she named PI 515 Pursuit of Innovation. 

Open to both girls and guys, each student comes from a war-torn African country. Mwirotsi's goal is to equip the students who come with tech skills to give them a leg up for future careers. Three years into the program, Mwirotsi's students are building robots, designing websites, and working on fixing a car. 

But most important, low-income students who never thought they'd be educated past high school are now considering college thanks to scholarship money their new skillset attracted. 

Iowa State offered PI 515 senior Bonito Ndayishimiye a full-ride scholarship. He will be the first in his family to attend a four-year college. 

From Poverty to Well-Paying Jobs

"In a couple of years I envision myself getting a degree in computer science and I am just fascinated, I want to learn how computers work and I would like to pretty much come up with things that could help other people," Bonito told CBN News. 

And now 15-year-old Louisa, who once felt like an outcast who couldn't speak English, is proficient in CSS and HTML, building websites, and has 4.0 GPA.  

"I know God will always be here with me by my side, and he will always take care of everything and all of my needs," said Louisa. 

Louisa is a junior web devoloper and recently won $100 from a PI 515 project.

"We were just building a website on any topic we'd like, and Nancy told us we were getting money but we didn't really believe her, so we just did it because hey, you might as well learn something!," said Louisa. "At the end of the program she actually gave us 100 dollar bill and it was amazing to actually receive something because of what you have done education wise."

Louisa had never had $100 in her hand before that day.

Hosting a year round, free technology program like this doesn't come easy. They rely on donations for everything from computers to teachers to the unexpected. But one of the most unique challenges Nancy faces with the program is convincing parents to let their girls pursue education before they get married.

"We come from a culture where if girls get married the parents are expected to receive a bride price," said Nancy, "I'm trying to educate parents that, yes, it's okay, but guess what? Your child is more important than a bride price, if she does well in school, it's way more than that $20,000 or $40,000 than they'll give you, because they'll support you."

As the PI 515 students take on new projects like building robots and restoring cars, Nancy hopes to find an even bigger space for the students to grow.  
 
"I believe that God, when he shows you a need he wants you to do something about it, he says go take care of that for me and as long as you take care of that I'll be right there standing right with you," said Nancy. "We're going to fight, to whatever way we can fight, to make sure every single kid we know gets an opportunity."

Thanks to PI 515, children who once felt like outcasts who couldn't communicate with their peers now have promising futures ahead of them in their new home. 

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