Northside Learning Center Assembles Volunteer Team of Translators and Distributes Food

When Ra Har Met, a graduating senior from the Public Service Leadership Academy at Fowler High School, heard that the Northside Learning Center (NSLC) was assembling a team of volunteers in response to COVID-19, he quickly got in touch with its executive director, Mark Cass. Cass wanted to make sure that the families near their facility had both food and information during the crisis.

Ra Har Met lives in Syracuse with his parents and 7 siblings. Before attending university to study Computer Forensics, he is helping Cass’s effort by translating for Burmese families. “Some have children with disabilities and can’t leave their home. They called me to get in touch with Mark so they could get food and masks,” stated Ra Har Met.

Ra Har Met is just one of several young New Americans who have stepped up to Cass’s call to serve as translators in their native languages. NSLC’s multi-lingual team of 24 volunteers is offering social distancing explanations and food distribution information in Arabic, Urdu, French, Burbur, Swahili, Somali, Maymay, Tigrinya, Amharic, Kirundi, Rohinga, Beembe, and English.

Ra Har Met, Abshir Habseme, Mark Cass and Dawit Gebremichael of the NSLC COVID-19 Outreach and Response Team.

Abshir Habseme, a graduating senior from Henninger High School who will be studying Computer Engineering at OCC, created a video in Somali with his friends to spread the word about social distancing. Abshir was excited about the video: “It makes me feel good. Trying to make people stay home to keep safe and to keep others safe. It’s actually working!”

One day while Abshir was volunteering, a Somali family came in to try to get food. There were nine people in the family, but they had come in too late. Abshir explained to them that they were done for the day and they had to return the following week. The family then explained that they were completely out of food. Abshir was able to translate to Cass and they decided to get a box together for them immediately.

Cass is aware of how important these volunteers are in the distribution of food and protective gear. “It’s heartwarming to work with these young men and women,” he noted. “None of them said no; they were eager to jump in. They have so much commitment, dedication and a great sense of responsibility. We’re doing important work and I’m learning so much from them. I love coming to work every day.”

Using $50,500 in funding from The COVID-19 Community Support Fund, NSLC has been able to distribute 425 boxes of food to more than 200 families. Each box contains rice, beans, oil, flour, sugar, salt, pasta, coffee, tea and meat. Mark estimates that the mosque has provided over 107,000 meals!

The Central New York Community Foundation, in partnership with United Way of Central New York, Allyn Foundation, The Dorothy and Marshall M. Reisman Foundation, Health Foundation for Western & Central New York, the City of Syracuse and Onondaga County established The COVID-19 Community Support Fund to support nonprofit organizations working with communities who are disproportionately impacted by economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic. To date, the fund has raised over $1.6 million from which vital funding is rapidly deployed to support the greatest needs.

Volunteers at NSLC sort food items to box up for Northside families.

Shabani Swedi, whose family is from the Democratic of Republic Congo (DRC), is translating in Swahili and Beembe. He will graduate next year from the Institute of Technology at Syracuse Central High School. Shabani has enjoyed helping his neighbors. He said, “We all get help from people we don’t know.”

NSLC volunteers started an organized outreach campaign and are assembling a database to include the number and ages of family members served. They are also identifying those in the household at greater risk of contracting the disease while assessing immediate and anticipated needs.

Dawit Gebremichael, whose family is from Eritrea, moved to Syracuse 4 years ago. He is a rising sophomore at Clarkson University studying Electrical Engineering. Dawit is translating Amharic and Tigrinya for the Northside community. He’s a deacon at his church and says, “It is my religion to help others.” He has been in touch with several families including single moms and single dads who have trouble shopping without their children.

Cass continues to be in awe of the Northside community. He noted that, on several occasions now, families have told him that they have received their unemployment checks and they’d like for him to offer the food box to someone who needs it more than they do. That sentiment of selflessness, along with the many volunteers who are helping at NSLC is why Mark believes their community is so strong. Regarding his volunteers, he added, “These people are treasures in the community.”

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