Doctoral student reaches out to area refugee girls with after-school program
November 5, 2009
Imani Nailah, commonly known as IN, is a unique name for an after-school program, but so are its participants. The name was chosen by the middle and high school girls that it serves.
Imani Nailah is a combination of Arabic and Swahili, and means “Faith in One Who Succeeds.” The young women in this Roanoke-based program are refugees living in the United States.
IN began under the leadership of Laura Boutwell of Abingdon, Va., a sociology doctoral candidate in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. In June 2008, Laura began a six-week summer program for refugee girls that met twice a week. The program was so successful it became Imani Nailah, and meets once a week to provide academic tutoring, youth leadership training, career exploration, and community engagement opportunities. “The young girls and women in Imani Nailah come from the Sudan, Somalia, Liberia, Haiti, Eritrea, and Burundi, said Boutwell. “I wanted to support young women in dreaming big dreams and in reaching their educational goals,” she said. Currently, IN serves 15 girls between the ages of 13 to 20.
Boutwell, who has a background in working with refugee youth, was impressed when she met Fatumata Yarmah, now 20, who came to the United States with her family in 2004 from Liberia. “Fatumata’s dedication to her education inspired me,” says Boutwell.
“Imani Nailah is important to me,” says Yarmah. “It supports me in reaching my goals,” she said.
IN activities are diverse, and they take the group all around the Roanoke area, including two trips to Virginia Tech’s Blacksburg campus. On Thursday, Oct. 22, the girls visited the Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke, Va., and then had dinner at a restaurant with members of the Junior League of Roanoke Valley, which is a women’s organization.
The girls of IN were paired with a Junior League member as their dinner companion. According to Emily Fielder, project associate at Virginia Career VIEW, and Junior League provisional co-chair, providing these adolescents with an opportunity to discuss education and career choices with successful young professionals is only one of the benefits to this collaboration.
Faduma Guhad, age 22, was born in Somalia and came to the United States in 2001. She and her three younger sisters are part of IN. Guhad, now a sophomore at Virginia Western Community College, assists Boutwell in leadership of IN.
“I came to the United States when I was 11 years old. And I really needed a community of young people who had similar experiences to mine,” said Guhad. “I can see the younger women in the group processing their new lives in the United States in very similar ways that I did,” she said.
IN is a partner of St. John’s Community Youth Program and is supported by Blue Ridge Behavioral Health Care. Also, IN members are tutored by undergraduates from Virginia Tech and Roanoke College, as well as Roanoke community members.
Boutwell earned a bachelor of arts degree from Hollins University in political science and sociology, and a master’s degree in social work from Radford University. In 2008, Boutwell was named a citizen-scholar by the Virginia Tech Graduate School for her work with IN.