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Mwanvua Angel Hamisi, 4, sits on the lap of 11-year-old Anny M. Assantha Sunday at the Safari Youth Club. (MARK HAYWARD/UNION LEADER))

Mark Hayward's City Matters: Safari Youth Club provides room for African immigrants to grow


LAST MONTH, Mayor Ted Gatsas and other civic leaders attended a rally to stick up for minorities and portray Manchester as a city with a strong immigrant heritage.

Basically, if you’re a newcomer to this city, you’ll be welcome — perhaps grudgingly at first — but welcome as long as you raise your kids right, work hard and play by the rules.

Of course, success is not guaranteed, and all sorts of ingredients contribute to immigrant success. One of those is a support community to fall back on.

In the past, different ethnic groups had a refuge — a house of worship, a corner store, a neighborhood — where they could speak their language, eat their native food and find some camaraderie in this strange new land.
“I feel like it’s a safe place. It keeps me away from the streets,” said Martin Irakuse, 17. The Burundi native attends Manchester High School Central and credits the Safari Youth Club with straightening him out after a few run-ins with school officials and police.

“This organization makes me feel like part of a family,” said Mbambi Mbungu, who grew up in the Congo.

The club meets in the afternoons on weekends and three weekdays at the YWCA building in downtown Manchester. It was founded by Hamisi Juma, 31, a Congolese native who helped open and run a similar youth club at the Tanzanian refugee camp where he spent the past seven years.

While founded to primarily serve new arrivals from countries such as Congo, Burundi and Somalia, the Safari Youth Club boasts a soccer program that is popular enough that it draws a few Latinos, Middle Easterners and Bhutanese.

The club also provides computer work stations for kids, help with homework and opportunities to play music.

I visited last Sunday at the YWCA. Most of the action was taking place in the rather cold gymnasium, where Southern New Hampshire University soccer player John Nitanga drilled the grade-school boys and then had them play a scrimmage.

In the adjacent YWCA conference room, Juma used a white board to quiz a half-dozen girls about basic algebra.

Later on, the children would get a snack and obligatory words of encouragement and perseverance from Juma.

Efforts like the Safari Youth Club are key to giving the city’s youth the structure they need, said Diane Fitzgerald, chief executive officer of the Boys and Girls Club.

Twenty-five years ago, she said, churches and neighborhoods provided that structure. But a lot of people don’t attend church anymore, and neighborhoods lack the cohesion that used to make them function, Fitzgerald said.

“We want kids to find places where they feel most comfortable,” Fitzgerald said. If they go from school to the Boys and Girls Club, take a boxing lesson at the Police Athletic League, get dinner at the Salvation Army then a weekend soccer lesson at Safari Youth Club, that child is on the pathway to success, she said.

“It’s not a competition between youth service agencies,” she said.

Juma, who has four children of his own, said he started the Safari Youth Club after seeing African children on the streets of Manchester. He knew the dangers that idleness bred in his refugee camp — alcohol abuse, crime and teen pregnancy.

He didn’t want that to happen here. He has enlisted a host of people to help him: Nitanga runs the soccer camp. His program director, Burundian refugee Ndabarushimana Christopher, ran a reggae band in North Carolina before joining him in Manchester.

The YWCA gives the organization the use of its gym and a meeting room.

But like any new organization, it has its struggles. Juma said its annual budget is only about $12,000. He has put his own money into it, and he recently launched a GoFundMe account to raise money for a van to pick up and drop off kids.

Yet he has some advantages. Juma has eight brothers, most of them teenagers, who lend a hand at the club.

Other teens are all too happy to help, too.

“We try to be their role models,” said Mbungu.

English is spoken in the gym, given the diversity among the boys playing soccer. During the algebra lesson, Hamisi and the girls switch back and forth between English and Swahili.

Juma said he doesn’t discourage young Africans from joining the other organizations. And his children attend the Boys and Girls Club at times. But he said Safari Youth Club offers something the other organizations can’t.

“We are African, and we do have our culture, even if we’re here in the United States,” Juma said. “We can’t give up that culture and focus on 100 percent American culture.”

Mark Hayward’s City Matters is published Saturdays. He can be reached at mhayward@unionleader.com.


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