Keyot Staff Teach Coding Skills to Refugee Teens

From the Des Moines Register

Nancy Mwirotsi knows a mountain of urgent need exists among the 20-some teens she sees Saturday mornings at Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church in Des Moines.

Most are refugee kids from Africa, who because of extreme poverty, trauma and lack of education face tremendous odds of finishing high school, let alone college.

The challenges are so many, in fact, Mwirotsi has put her own life on hold to try to better safeguard the teens’ long-term future. Her current struggle: Finding enough money to keep a special program for them going.

“We are faced with such a huge challenge and unfortunately the time to wait is not on our side,” she wrote recently to the Reader’s Watchdog.

Close to 60 percent of African-American seventh-graders in Des Moines Public Schools are considered “not proficient” in reading during the 2013-14 school year, according to the district’s latest assessments. That shoots up to 77 percent among English language learners.

Mwirotsi heard similar statistics and asked herself what she could do to better the chances of success for the refugee children she knew at Zion. She found an answer after seeing projections that the United States will need as many as 1 million new technology jobs in five years.

Last spring, Mwirotsi formed a group called PI 515 to teach the middle- and high-school students basic computer coding. Her thinking: Students will gain job skills early, enhance their chances of obtaining a higher education and learn how to use technology to solve problems.

Zion has become one of the lead churches in central Iowa to help refugee families, offering tutoring in English, life skills, job readiness training and leadership classes, as well as clothing and furniture. Mwirotsi’s program grew out of that outreach.

The coding classes are taught by Matt Brown, a student working on his master’s degree at Iowa State University, with the help of his wife, Kristina. Brown said the group has barely enough laptops to teach all the kids who want to be involved. “When we have a full class, we’re really on the edge,” he said.

Brown says he’s always looking for donations from companies looking to get rid of outdated laptops. “They don’t even need to be that great,” he said.

But the biggest need of the group is cash – for meals, transportation and other needs.

Sophia Mulemba, a 16-year-old I met in the class before Christmas, personifies the type of teens Mwirotsi and the Browns are trying to lift up.

Mulemba’s father was poisoned to death years ago in the Democratic Republic of Congo in central Africa, and her mother subsequently came to the U.S. in 2008 with eight children in tow. Then, the mother had a heart attack, preventing her from working, Mulemba said.

Mulemba attends North High School, gets good grades and plays basketball. “Eventually, I want to attend the University of Georgia and become a lawyer,” she told me.

On some mornings, Mwirotsi will get up as early as 6 a.m. and use a bus from Zion to round up all the kids at different apartment complexes.

Once at church, Matt Brown will walk the students through basic coding skills using a projector and individual laptops. Then there’s food and, often, a visitor or a field trip to underscore how bright the future can be for a young person with tech skills. (On the morning I visited, the kids were heading to the World Food Prize building downtown.)

Mwirotsi chooses only teens with grades of B’s or better for the class. This year for the first time, the group is also hoping to host a gala on April 24 to spotlight PI 515 and raise money.

Mwirotsi’s goal for the class in the year to come is to have them use their programming skills to develop a website offering assistance in multiple languages to all sorts of refugees. That’s because the parents of the refugee children often speak no English and have difficulty finding work and different types of assistance.

But Mwirotsi says the African families who have been settling in Des Moines in recent years have come with little more than the clothes on their back, so the needs of both the children and adults are immense.

On the morning I interviewed Mwirotsi, she had just tracked down cribs for a woman who moved into a Des Moines apartment and gave birth to twins. The woman’s husband had not yet received permission to come to the United States.

“She didn’t even have food,” she said.

The Rev. John Kline, Zion’s pastor, says PI 515 promises to do much more for the kids and their families than providing a high-demand job skill. “Nancy’s program helps them to find purpose while teaching them to be responsible,” he said. “I truly believe she will help the kids grow up to be fruitful and fulfilled. It’s holy work.”

If you are interested in answering Mwirotsi’s call for help, you can find out more about PI 515 on Facebook, call Mwirotsi at 515-344-4326 or send check donations to Zion Lutheran Church with PI 515 written in the memo.

Lee Rood’s Reader’s Watchdog column helps Iowans get answers and accountability from public officials, the justice system, businesses and nonprofits. Contact her at lrood@dmreg.com, 515-284-8549 on Twitter @leerood or at Facebook.com/readerswatchdog.