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Reno mentorship program provides community, language practice for young refugees

The Northern Nevada International Center holds get-togethers for refugee youth adjusting to life in the United States.
Carly Sauvageau
Carly Sauvageau
CommunityNorthern Nevada
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Twenty-year-old Fakhar Sultani lived in Afghanistan until he and his family moved to Reno in 2017.

Six years later Sultani — who goes by Omar because “Fakhar is kind of hard to pronounce” — has finished high school by age 16, completed his associate degree in automotive studies at Truckee Meadows Community College and is working on another degree in cyber security while also working at Tesla. 

“I had not so much opportunities back in Afghanistan,” he said in a late November interview with The Nevada Independent. “There was no school, which was like — we want to have a bright future.”

As Sultani is sharing his story, cheers erupt from the gathering room adjacent to the hallway where the interview is taking place. 

When he returns to the team-building activity that involves constructing the tallest structure using only tape, marshmallows and dry pasta, his group informs him that his architectural creation has won. He smiles and rejoins the table.

Sultani is one of more than 20 participants in the Northern Nevada International Center’s refugee mentorship program who showed up at that night’s event. Joining him are other refugees as well as mentors and program organizers.

Aaron Laden, who is the refugee youth coordinator with the international center, created the program to emulate the church youth groups he attended when he was a teenager. Laden grew up in Reno, but spent some time in Asia after he finished school before returning, later joining the international center’s staff.

Mentees build a structure out of dried pasta and marshmallows as a team-building activity through the refugee mentorship program organized by the Northern Nevada International Center in Reno on Friday, Nov. 17, 2023. (Carly Sauvageau/The Nevada Independent)

“The other inspiration for this was something … that I took part in often when I lived in China, which was something we call English corners or English cafes,” Laden said. 

English cafes are common in places where many people are learning English but it is not their first language. Laden said they offer chances for people to practice their language skills without the pressure of a classroom.

The refugee youth gatherings are also a way for people with similar experiences to connect with one another and build relationships in a safe space, Laden said.

“For new arrivals, it gives them an opportunity to meet people from where they came from,” he said. “So even if they're not confident in their English skills, they can at least talk to other people who know their language.”

The mentorship program is one of many the Northern Nevada International Center has developed to help welcome people arriving in Reno from countries such as Afghanistan, Ukraine, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria and El Salvador. Since 2016, the organization has resettled more than 500 people. 

Many of the refugees who have settled in Reno decide to stay in the city, building businesses and communities

The refugee youth mentorship program has also been a way for not only refugee youth to connect, but for the broader Reno community to get to know neighbors with international roots.

Mentors for the program range from people who are immigrants themselves to American-born empty nesters looking for a way to stay involved.

Ericka Mora Campos, who came to the United States from Costa Rica to pursue a graduate degree in civil engineering at UNR, is one of the volunteer mentors. 

Mora Campos brought her dog, Milo, to the gathering in hopes that he could act as an emotional support animal for the younger kids as they worked to become more comfortable talking to other youth in the group.

Mora Campos said she hopes her own experiences coming from another country can help others transition to life in the United States. 

“The difference is that I chose it,” Mora Campos said. “I would like to share all those experiences and my mistakes and my lessons to people that may actually get a lot out of them.”

She said she is also looking forward to all she can learn from the mentees.

“It's such an amazing experience to share this with different people,” Mora Campos said. 

The number one piece of advice Mora Campos said she would give someone moving to the United States is to not be afraid to speak up about what you need, even if that person is not familiar with the language.

“It's OK just to ask because we all are humans,” she said. “We should all be very understanding with each other.”

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