Asende Alex enjoys preparing a iced coffee at her new job, thanks to the collaborative partnership of Catholic Charities of Central Florida Refugee Youth Services caseworkers and Second harvest Food Bank's culinary program. (GLENDA MEEKINS)

Programs broaden horizons for refugees

Last names have been omitted to protect minors.

ORLANDO | It’s 4 a.m. and 18-year-old Asende Alex is waking up to get to her job at Starbucks in the Florida Hotel in Orlando, but she’s not complaining.

Until two years ago, Alex had spent her entire life living in a refugee camp in Tanzania after her parents fled the war in Congo. She chose the early shift so her father can give her a ride, but in the afternoon she’s not so lucky. It will take her two buses and an hour and a half to get home, for what should be a 30-minute trip. Still, her gratitude for Catholic Charities of Central Florida Refugee Youth Services and Second Harvest Food Bank remains strong. The agencies helped her get the training needed to get a job and help her family.

On the other end of town, 16-year-old Fiorella R. is waiting for CCCF case managers to pick her up. They have been travelling from Apopka to Poinciana all morning, gathering up youths ages 16-19 so they can attend tutoring at the University of Central Florida. Fiorella arrived from Venezuela nine months ago under political asylum. Since then she has been working hard to pass required tests to graduate from high school and she looks forward to the help.

For both of these young women, the goal is the same — learn English and adapt to life in a new country. For each, the path will be different.

“Asende’s initial plan was to pass the GED so she could go to college. But being the eldest child of five children, she felt responsible to help her parents,” explained CCCF case manager Kim Latt.

“When Asende asked me to help her find a job, she also realized that she did not have any work experience, skill or English proficiency, but I saw that she has the great attitude and willingness to work hard.” Although Alex had been taking English as a Second Language (ESOL) courses at Orlando Technical School, her command of the language was still crude. “I presented her the culinary training at Second Harvest Food Bank, and Asende saw this opportunity to build her skill and experience,” said Latt.

In January, Latt and Alex’s volunteer mentor, Caitlin McGrath, helped her apply for the culinary program. Her charm and enthusiasm garnered her a spot. The team spent the next 14 weeks accompanying Alex on her journey, making sure she would succeed. “Although I had my initial doubts, they soon disappeared,” said Latt. “Asende was not a quitter. Once she set her goal, she worked hard to reach it.”

Alex remembered her first day of class at Second Harvest. “It was too hard. I didn’t understand,” she recalled. “They speak so fast and my English so slow. I say, ‘Oh, I can’t do this because I don’t speak English.’” She admits she wanted to quit and nearly called Latt. Alex decided to keep going because she loves cooking and recognized she needed the culinary knowledge and experience.

Her commitment paid off. Within weeks of graduating, Alex became employed full time as a barista. Despite the long bus rides, she said she would not change a thing. “Living here is better than in Tanzania,” she stated. “There is no work there.” Alex’s dreams of finishing school and becoming a nurse are still very much alive. They are just on hold. “I thank Miss Kim so much,” Alex said. “I am so happy, really happy. Now I help my family to buy food and pay for the house. Now I know something I didn’t know.”

Fiorella is also pushing for growth, and CCCF Refugee Youth Services partnerships are helping her make a smooth transition. In collaboration with the University of Central Florida, Fiorella and other immigrant students are gaining necessary skills to pass the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) and American College Test (ACT). Passing one of these exams is a graduation requirement for ESOL students who have not taken the Florida State Assessment, given in 10th grade.

“Our Catholic Charities clients are receiving tutoring that will hopefully help them on their tests. And our Catholic Charities clients are helping to train our tutors so they can work better with ESOL students when they become teachers,” said Sehada Aganovic, a 15-year veteran CCCF caseworker. “But what is most important is that the students get inspired by coming here. They come to the U.S. and most say they want to go to college, but they don’t know what that looks like. So we take this opportunity to show them UCF and to learn about different programs here. Coming here, they really get inspired and know why they need to work so hard in high school.”

Antonio Losavio, the UCF doctoral student in education in charge of the partnership, agreed. “There are so many benefits to our community, to our future teachers and scholars.” A product of Catholic schools and daily Mass, Losavio said, “It was instilled in me at an early age that my role on earth is to engage in charity, global citizenship and social justice to help my neighbors. … On a spiritual level I was taught that we don’t succeed unless we all succeed together.”

Fiorella has felt that welcoming spirit. “I like the program because they help me with vocabulary and are patient, explaining everything. It’s incredible,” she said. As a rising senior at Dr. Phillips High School, she is not yet scheduled for the exams, but wants to be ready. She would like to study dentistry or nursing, and is working on her language proficiency with CCCF so that dream is within reach.

Anyone interested in becoming a refugee youth mentor for the CCCF Refugee Resettlement program can call Carolina Toro at 407-658-1818.

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