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After-School Programs Go Multicultural

Community Groups Reach Out To Kids From Around the Globe

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 24, 2005; Page C04

It's not every day you see an African American teaching an ancient Chinese art to Vietnamese and Cameroonians.

It's every seven days, in fact -- if you turn up at the Vietnamese-American Community Service Center in Columbia Heights.

Hieu Phung, 10, left, Kierane Tchemi, 9, and Maximillien Kamdem, 14, practice their kung fu moves after school. (Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)

There, at 4:30 p.m. last Thursday, Rahim Muhammad, a kung fu master and native Washingtonian, planted himself in front of three rows of immigrant kids in a whitewashed basement room. "Lop jaen!" he barked. Come to attention!

Soon, the children were rhythmically thrusting forward fists and legs at his commands, learning kung fu moves -- and hopefully, something more.

"Self-discipline! I think that's the most important thing," Muhammad lectured the class at the end of the weekly session.

The kung fu class is part of a growing effort by community groups in the city to reach out to immigrant children. With 15 percent of the District's population born in other countries, an increasing number of parents are not familiar with American institutions, say immigrant advocates and city officials.

"The parents don't speak English or know the system. Even though there are [after-school] programs, they don't participate in them," said Ellen Yung-Fatah, deputy director of the D.C. government's Office of Early Childhood Development.

While immigrant advocates say there are still not enough after-school programs, numerous groups have organized activities to help such children, many with funding from the city. One of the first was the Latin American Youth Center, begun in 1974 to serve a growing number of families arriving from Central America. The center, in Columbia Heights, now helps about 600 students after school each day, offering classes in everything from computers to radio production.

Programs aimed at the District's Asian American population are newer, city officials say. Sandy Dang, the founder of Asian-American LEAD, a community organization, said she launched her first after-school program a decade ago to keep kids from joining Vietnamese gangs in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood in Northwest. Today, the organization helps almost 100 Chinese and Vietnamese students each day with homework, college applications and negotiating skills for dealing with traditional-minded immigrant parents.

"A lot of parents come to this country and don't know how to support their kids. They don't know how to go to school and advocate for their kids. The kids are left to sink or swim," Dang said. The result, she said, can be alienated children who drop out.

Her center also works with parents, trying to explain the American culture and mores their children are absorbing.

"They expect their children to have the same values and same behavior as if they were in Vietnam," Dang said. For example, she said, some parents don't think it's proper for their daughters to go away to college.

The year-old program at the Vietnamese American Community Service Center is unusual in serving children from vastly different cultures. The Cameroonian-Vietnamese combo came about because the Vietnamese center is downstairs from the Ethiopian Community Development Council office, which serves immigrants from Africa.

"They don't have a youth program," explained Hien Vu, director of the Vietnamese group. "We want to help their kids."

Every afternoon, Vietnamese students -- the biggest group in the program -- join the Cameroonians in doing homework at long tables or on computers, assisted by staff and volunteer tutors at the Vietnamese center.

Afterward, the students practice karate, play softball, write poetry or practice dance (both traditional Vietnamese and hip-hop). They banter in French, Vietnamese and English.

The program "gives me something to do in the afternoon and helps me with my homework," said Chris Nguyen, 13, of the Petworth neighborhood. He said it was difficult to get help with his school assignments from his Vietnamese immigrant parents. "They're busy. They have work. They come home tired," Chris said.

Airton Kamden, who immigrated a few months ago from Cameroon, said he liked the center because it had computers, unlike his family's home in the Northeast D.C. neighborhood of Lincoln Heights.

"I left all my family, my friends. So here I made new friends, new company," the 10-year-old said in careful English. Like most of the children, he seemed unfazed by the different backgrounds of his companions.

"They're different. I just do things with them," he shrugged. "They can help me with computers."

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