CEDAR RAPIDS — When Rama Muzo emigrated from Tanzania nearly 16 years ago to study business at Wichita State University in Kansas, he didn’t know how things worked in this country.
It’s that awareness, he said, that makes it easier to establish lines of trust with refugee families, who often have scarred pasts from living in war-torn countries and haven’t had much guidance adapting to the United States until Muzo stepped in.
“I understand their struggle. Even though I didn’t live with that struggle, I understand,” said Muzo, recalling Tanzanian refugee camps he’d witnessed that were filled with Africans chased out of their homes and countries.
Today he is an intercultural community resources specialist at the Cedar Rapids Community School District. He works with nearly 120 English language learners, most who are immigrants and refugees from African countries, in in-school and after-school activities that improve the likelihood of success in the classroom and later in life.
These children face disadvantages, Muzo said, often coming from lower-income backgrounds, which can be a barrier to opportunity in the United States. That’s why he was hired — to help them and their families find ways to succeed and break out of poverty.
He’s been with the district for nearly five years, running nearly seven after-school programs, from basketball at the YMCA, to an online radio station and robotics teams. He also organizes college tours in hopes it will shift the conversations at home from “if you’re going to college” to “what college are you going to?”
“It’s to expose them to different possibilities that they normally wouldn’t get compared to the general population,” he said.
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But the effort can’t stop with the children, he said. Many of these students are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches. That means they come from low-income backgrounds, and statistically are less likely to graduate college or find well-paying jobs in the future. His strategy is to address the issue at the source by finding employment for parents of these children in hopes more income will give the children, and their families, a greater chance of success.
“It’s rough when your background came with war and everything like that, but how do we move forward? How do we become and stay positive?” Muzo said. “If we don’t have those kinds of conversations, guess what’s going to happen. The family is going to stay in poverty ... then everyone else in the city is going to pay for it. If we provide them with these opportunities to help them, they’ll do well for themselves. It helps everybody. It helps the city. It helps everybody else in the long-term.”
Muzo organizes job fairs to connect parents to area employers. He recently established an agreement with Color Web Printers, a printing company owned by The Gazette Company, to interview and offer employment to some parents.
Another part of adjusting to life in the United States means learning about its laws. He has invited police officers to speak with to form positive relationships.
“For these families, this is home. This is it,” Muzo said. “As a community, it’s very important to actually understand it’s not like these families are going back somewhere. This is it.
“If this is their home, these are our neighbors. If they don’t do well, we don’t do well as a community.”