By Mellisa Mullinax
Junior Nadine Zaatar grew up in Fairfax and goes to school here in Fredericksburg, but now she volunteers tutoring children from all over the world.
In February of last year her roommate approached her about the African Refugee Tutoring Program and she became aware of how she could play a role in supporting those in need.
The African Refugee Tutoring Program is supported by many local community organizations and churches. The main branches are Old Forge Junction and Heritage Park and Fort Bragg.
When Zaatar came onto the scene, the previous coordinator of the Heritage Park section had recently resigned because of the heavy work load.
“It’s a really tiny community center with no sponsorship and no funding. They live off the community,” Zaatar said, “They need attention.”
Sophomore Laura Allan became involved with the program by accident. As a freshman she signed up for a lot of clubs at Club Carnival but never heard back from any of them. In the spring, she received an email about the program and began attending weekly meetings.
At UMW, students become involved with the African Refugee Program by volunteering with Community Outreach and Resources (COAR).
“It’s called the African Refugee Program because the girl who started it noticed that Fredericksburg has a significant refugee population,” Allan said.
Now Allan runs the Olde Forge Junction branch with other volunteers. They have about 15 third to fifth graders from the Olde Forge Junction community.
While many of them are refugees, they also come from immigrant families or otherwise underprivileged households.
Everyday after school the children take a bus to a local Baptist church. They have a full meal provided by the church, and then the tutors help the children with homework.
“You have to explain what science is before you can do the science homework,” Allan said.
When she began working in the program, a lot of the kids were very new. “It’s been really, really amazing to see the progress. It’s so difficult for them to come into a new country and environment. At first you can see that they really struggle, but all they really need is little encouragement,” Allan said.
Zataar heads the section of the program that works with underprivileged children living in the Heritage Park community. Like the children Allan works with, many of them had been living in refugee camps in sub-Saharan Africa with their parents for years before coming to the United States. Many of the children were born in those camps. Many of their parents don’t speak English.
A young boy Zaatar met “couldn’t even read a sentence” when she first began working in the program in February of 2009. “By September he could read an entire book to me and didn’t even stutter,” Zaatar said.
At first many of the refugee parents were hesitant to have their children work within the program. “We had to earn their trust,” Zaatar said, “And now we can fill the void where their parents can’t always be there.” The male volunteers play basketball with the boys and talk to them about growing up.
What started as just Zaatar, her roommate and 40 community children has ballooned into 40 regular volunteers and the addition of the Fort Bragg community center. By April of 2009 the program had gained such a great reputation that it received the Outstanding Community Service Award from Mary Washington.
Zaatar credits the program’s success because of “such great support” from the students, Christina Eggenberger of OSACS and Dean Cedric Rucker.
“For a while I was volunteering four days a week, two hours a day to ensure the program wouldn’t fail. By September students wanted to get involved, and now the program is such a great success,” Zaatar said. The students are passing their SOLs and are proud of their schoolwork.
“I’ve gotten really attached to these kids. I feel like they’re my own siblings sometimes,” Zaatar said. “Even the people only doing it for restitution have gotten so attached to the kids and they come every week now.”
As the semester approaches its final weeks, Zaatar will soon only have a year left at Mary Washington. “I really hope this program lasts after I’m gone,” Zaatar said. The needs of the Heritage Park, Fort Bragg and Olde Forge Junction communities will not graduate with her.