Posted by: rcieri | November 15, 2009

Fresh starts, hopeful futures: Local college students tutor refugee children in Greensboro

October 28, 2009

By Rachel Cieri


Elon volunteers help some of the Avalon children complete their homework during a tutoring session. Photo by David Wells.

Tucked away on the back roads of suburban Greensboro, Avalon Trace Apartments is only a 30-minute drive from Elon, but it might as well be a different world.

Loitering is a favorite hobby of the residents, many of whom can only find part-time work or have been left unemployed in an unstable economy. A few hang around outside the one-story gray brick buildings, but the real center of this community is where the children go after school.

The apartments set aside for the Avalon Community Center’s tutoring program are like caves, mostly windowless and poorly lit. The hodgepodge of furniture has seen better days, but the walls make an effort to be youngster-friendly with brightly-colored artwork.

“The program has about 30 to 35 children,” said Jack Tyler, the tutoring center’s volunteer coordinator. “It’s for anyone who’s in school. But all of them don’t always come every day.”

Tyler, an employee of UNC Greensboro’s Center for New North Carolinians, said the tutoring program started in January as a partnership of the Americorp Community Collaborative and the African Services Coalition, groups that assist local immigrant and refugee communities with their adjustment to life in the states.

A Reidsville native, Tyler got involved with Americorp and the CNNC after graduating from UNCG with a degree in international and global studies.

“I’ve always wanted to help people,” he said. “Refugees are Americans, too, and they want to be here like everyone else. They just need help because they’re starting from scratch.”

The funding for the program came from a grant to the ACC from the Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and the tutoring center grew out of an existing initiative to help adult refugees find employment and further their education.

According to the CNNC, there are likely more than 15,000 people from Africa living in Guilford County, although there are no official numbers because the census categorizes them as “black” or “African American.” About 1,500 of these residents are refugees. The Southeast Asian immigrant population in Greensboro is also sizable, estimated at more than 10,000 people.

Tyler said most of the refugees who come to Avalon hail from the Democratic Republic of Congo or Myanmar, escaping oppressive military regimes and ethnic conflict.

Volunteer Brant Miller, a senior at UNCG, said even in reflection papers for his service learning class, he never used the names of any refugees at Avalon.

“Some of them escaped illegally, so we don’t use their names to keep someone from coming after them,” he said.

Miller is one of dozens of university student volunteers who go to Avalon every weekday evening to help refugee children, from kindergarten to high school, get through their homework and overcome the language barrier.

Elon students have volunteered at the tutoring center since the spring, alongside students from other colleges like UNCG, Guilford College, North Carolina A&T and Bennett College. This fall, it became an official Elon Volunteers! organization, headed by senior Grace Helms and sophomore Katie Kenney.

Anyone is welcome to volunteer, but as a French major, Miller has an advantage over some of the other tutors. Many of the children and their parents come from French-speaking nations like Ethiopia, allowing Miller to communicate with them in their native tongue when necessary.

But the language barrier the children have with other tutors and their teachers at school does not prevent them from doing their best.

Guilford College freshman and Avalon volunteer Andrew Glass said he thinks the children at Avalon work harder than the typical student. Glass has been giving up his Friday nights to come to the tutoring center since September.

“I just enjoy being around the kids and building relationships with them,” he said.

Some of the volunteers admit to having a “favorite” — a child with whom they share a special bond and come back to see week after week. For Miller, it’s 7-year-old Bubba. For first-time volunteer Arthur Wood, it might be Papi, a friendly 5-year-old Congolese child.

“I came because my girlfriend tutors here, but I can’t see myself stopping,” he said, holding Papi in his arms. He motioned to the boy. “I mean, how could I not?”

Papi hopped down to chase after another child with a soccer ball and joined in the continuous pickup game on the dusty lawn behind the tutoring center. The three apartments that comprise the community center are in constant motion, with children running in and out of the doors and adults lingering to speak with program coordinators.

One room with computers is set aside as a place for residents to fill out job applications and children to type up their school assignments, and it is always in high demand. Here, closing the door is not a sufficient way to say “keep out.” Intermittent banging on the apartment doors is considered normal, rather than cause for alarm.

“For me, the best part is when parents stop —” Tyler started. He stopped short when the locked door burst open and three men crossed the threshold, asking for the computer. After sternly sending them away, relocking the door and shooing a few small children back outside, he sat down again to finish.

“The best part is when parents stop coming up to me because it means things are going well,” he said. “(The refugees) have had everything given to them for such a long time, and now they have to start over with no help. When they stop coming to me asking for things, I know they’re doing OK.”



  1. Do most of the refugees come from Africa or is there a South American and Asian community as well?

  2. Although many of the refugees at Avalon come from Africa, the Southeast Asian immigrant population in Greensboro is also sizable, estimated at more than 10,000 people according to the CNNC.

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