Photo by Tariq Tarey

Guiding Spirit

It’s hard enough to be 16.

The angst, the hormones, the awkwardness of navigating a rapidly shifting social strata.

Now, imagine adding to that the stresses of a foreign language, a different culture, and public policy that continues to evolve into laws and legislation that feel less than welcoming to the other.

This is what Jeremy Hollon focuses on every day when it comes to the lives of Columbus’s teenage refugees.

Hollon is coordinator of a community connector program through Columbus Community Refugee and Immigration Services (CRIS) that works with the young New American population in town. With nearly a decade of experience in human services, he saw an opportunity to create a new kind of program for this underserved population through the Community Connectors grant, implemented by Governor Kasich and the Ohio state legislature in 2014 as a means of strengthening communities through mentoring programs.

What appealed to Hollon wasn’t only the obvious outreach aspect, but how this program could create a new kind of pathway for New Americans, giving them the one-on-one support and resources to be a normal kid.

“Lots of the time, there’s pressure on these kids to interpret, to cook, to be the breadwinner, to help navigate new cultural norms,” he said. “Kicking a ball with friends can be therapeutic and allow them to be a regular 16-year-old in Ohio.”

The program runs on a simple ideal: kids enrolled in CRIS’ Community Connector program are paired with local mentors, meeting once a week to do everything from homework to looking for jobs to playing soccer. The hope is that the impact will be long term, specifically when it comes to self worth and identity within the context of their new country. Thanks to social media and 24-hour news cycles, the plight of the modern refugee has become mainstream—and with that comes opinions, policies and sweeping generalizations from politicians and citizens, alike.

By the time Trump issued his travel ban on January 28, 2017, the subject of refugees and immigration had become a polarizing, politicized, issue.

This, according to Hollon, is a critical reason why mentoring is important.

“How do you explain the ban list to a middle schooler who’s trying to figure out who they are?” he said.

The implications run beyond your standard run-of-the-mill grade school bullying, including loss of cultural identity (out of fear) and internalized bitterness. Hollon frames it this way:

“How will these kids see the world when they’re in their 30s after being told they’re less-than during their formative years? Will they decide to go to college abroad? Or just not go to school? Or just become angry? I’m very concerned about what their view of this place will be.”

And so, CRIS’ Community Connector program starts to solve the problem through pick-up games, trips to the library, painting murals, and tackling the problem by finding ways to keep pity out of the equation. This isn’t a time for coddling or sadness—this is when these kids get to have a childhood, be a teenager and experience all the highs and lows of navigating everything from first crushes to school dances to getting a driver’s license.

Most importantly, the program also provides critical support in helping mentees achieve their professional goals, whether that be entering the workforce after high school graduation or continuing onto higher education. The latter becomes increasingly important when dissecting the complicated world of college applications, financial aid, and everything in between. With mentors that ranges from college students to professionals, mentees get a glimpse of what their futures could look like and the kind of opportunities afforded them here in Columbus—and the built-in expertise on how to make those opportunities a reality.

Perhaps even more significantly, the Community Connector program serves all aspects of the mentee’s community, notably the family, providing wraparound support for parents and guardians who are also navigating new social norms. It’s this connector piece of the program that encourages mentors to bridge gaps in the system, point towards available resources in central Ohio, and figure out ways to organically assist all parties involved.

Columbus has provided the ideal backdrop. At first glance, central Ohio doesn’t seem like the obvious land of opportunity for New American populations, but in 2017 alone CRIS has welcomed on average 684 immigrants and refugees from over 15 countries, including Syria, Bhutan and Somalia. As such there’s already an inviting culture built into the city’s DNA, one that willingly integrates new populations into the community through cuisine and business growth. Add in an affordable standard of living and public transportation, Columbus remains one of the few major metropolitan areas that makes it possible for a fresh start.

And while there’s still much to be desired in terms of true integration of immigrants and refugees with mainstream Columbus culture, the newness of the city means that it can absorb population influxes without a breakdown in city infrastructure and allows for diversity, especially within the classroom. Just look at Northside or Linden and you’ll find schools dedicated to language learners, equipped with resources to serve a wide range of needs. At Columbus Global alone, over 55 countries are represented.

For Hollon, bringing awareness to this cultural richness is also part of the community connector program, providing appropriate ways for different groups to interact.

“My job is to seek out the people who aren’t engaging, see why they aren’t engaging and figure out a way to make it accessible,” he said.

With the current political climate swirling around the end of Kasich’s gubernatorial term, the future of the community connector grant is tenuous, and thus the CRIS Community Connector Program is trying to find ways to build up a sustainable program. Federal financial resources are also being limited and with the closing of the Columbus chapter of World Relief, uncertainty abounds.

“I’m always worried about building in a goodbye in case we don’t get funded and fail all of these kids. And it would be likely due to outside forces that don’t understand or interact with these populations,” Hollon said.

In the meantime, mentors and mentees will continue to meet all around Columbus, finding common ground in boy problems, driver’s ed and all the things that typify the standard adolescent experience. In the end, says Hollon, the only prerequisite for connection is the same one that Hollon has for those who participate in his program:

“I only require that you be human. We can figure out the rest later.”

In Their Words

Editor’s note: Due to legal ramifications, we are not permitted to print first or last names of mentees in the Community Connector Program. The following quotes are representative of what CRIS’ program means to them:

“[When] I first moved to Atlanta it was expensive. When I came to Columbus it was much easier to live, to buy groceries.” – Somali High School Student

“The tall buildings they were so big like nothing I have seen.” – Nepali high school student

“Can talk to them if I ever have problems. It is like having a new family member.” – Somali middle school student

“I called my mentor when I was in trouble at school before I called my family.” – Nepali high school student

“She helps me apply for jobs and takes me to places I haven’t been before.” – Guatemalan high school student