By Rebekah Castor, Alexis EauClaire, Taylor Epps Syracuse, N.Y. (NCC News) — Jessica Vinciguerra is the youngest of eight children. With her older siblings already moved out of the house, Vinciguerra always wanted a younger brother or sister to spend time with. That wish came true in February 2015 when the young boy across the street, Tat Tun, moved in with the Vinciguerra family. However, Tun was no ordinary neighbor boy. Tun, a Muslim refugee from Burma, moved to the United States with his family after living in a refugee camp.
“One day he spent the night and never went home,” Vinciguerra said.
Vinciguerra explained that Tun’s parents allowed him to live with her family as long as he still attended school and did his schoolwork instead of playing video games all day. Tun found a caring place in the Vinciguerra home.
“I love the people in this house and what they do,” said Tun. “They help people. They don’t just care about themselves.”
Having a refugee live in their house was nothing out of the ordinary for the Vinciguerra family. Jessica and her parents, Lou and Anne, run a grassroots, faith-based organization located on Syracuse’s North side. This organization, Yeshua Restoration Ministries (YRM) puts a lot of focus on helping refugees.
“We’re not known as one of the big nonprofits in Syracuse because of how grassroots we are,” said Vinciguerra. “But we’re okay with that. I mean it’s just me and my parents as staff.”
Lou, a former business owner of a startup printing and publishing company, and Anne Vinciguerra, a home school teacher, have lived in Syracuse for the greater part of their adult lives, according to Vinciguerra. After weekly attendance at Sunday worship services at a struggling North side church, Lou and Anne made the decision to leave their business and answer a full-time call to ministry.
Following this call, Lou, Anne, and Jessica moved into an abandoned crack house on North Townsend Street in 2010 so they could become permanent neighbors to refugees living on the North side and begin their Christian ministry, according to Vinciguerra.
Jessica Vinciguerra loves spending her time with youth refugees. © 2015 Yeshua Restoration Ministries
Their ministry focuses on serving the North side community. YRM does this through youth soccer leagues, student tutoring, community service projects, refugee advocacy programs, community dinners, and locating dignified housing for neighbors, according to the ministry’s website. With its non-profit status, the ministry is eligible to receive grants, said Vinciguerra. The grants, along with outside donations, fund the ministry.
As the Vinciguerras began to develop relationships with their diverse neighbors, they became more aware of the misunderstanding the word “Christian” can create with refugees who come from a wide range of countries around the world. This is why their ministry is named Yeshua Restoration Ministries, according to the website. Yeshua is the Hebrew name for Jesus. Working under this name allows the ministry to be kept separated from the harm done in the name of Jesus by so-called “Christians” around the world, according to its website.
Jessica Vinciguerra lives in a neighbor highly populated by refugees. © 2016 Taylor Epps
“I was always kind of timid about living where I lived when I was younger,” said Jessica Vinciguerra, referring to living next door to refugees. “I didn’t think I’d have good neighbors, but now I have almost 30 younger siblings from 13 different countries.”
The North side community is comprised of people from four geographic regions, with 42 percent of residents predominantly migrating from Africa. People living there speak eight distinct languages: Swahili, Somali, Burmese, English, Arabic, Nepali, Kirundi, and Plaar, according to YRM.
According to the Onondaga Citizens League, Syracuse has seen a boost in the arrivals of refugees increasing from 450 people to 800 people since 2008.
“One of the most common stereotypes of refugees is that they are poor and illiterate,” said Syracuse University Professor Lamis Abdelaay.
Studies have shown that there have been economic boosts for countries that have let in refugees, which goes against the well-known stereotype, said Abdelaay. Refugees are capable of bringing their assets and labor skills to whatever destination they may end up in, which would only help the economy of the country, according to Abdelaay.
Abdelaay stressed that refugees are just like anyone else, and they had a whole life before they were forced to leave their home countries.
“It is very easy for people to lose sight of all that,” Abdelaay said.
When asked how to interact with refugees, Jessica Vinciguerra says, “Show love.” © 2015 Yeshua Restoration Ministries
Working closely with refugees through Yeshua Restoration Ministries, Vinciguerra has seen first-hand how refugees are no different from anyone else.
Living in the one house on the street that has a yard, Vinciguerra’s home is where many youth refugees come to hang out.
“Kids who didn’t speak the same language fought, but the second a soccer ball came out they were friends,” said Jess. “People don’t realize that they’re people. They just look at them as numbers.”
District Common Councilor Joseph Carni represents the North side and has known about Yeshua Restoration Ministries for awhile.
“I think it’s great when groups like this in the community reach out to refugees,” said Carni.
With school testing right around the corner, Yeshua Restoration Ministries is preparing students for their final tests. YRM offers personalized tutoring programs on Monday and Wednesday nights for refugee students of all ages, focusing on developing basic math, phonics, reading and grammar skills, according to Vinciguerra.
“A lot of programs already exist for the refugee students to pass the exams,” said Vinciguerra, referring to prep courses for the Regents exams New York State students have to take.
Vinciguerra explained that YRM focuses on the basic elementary principles of math, reading and grammar and perfecting their understanding of English because the refugee students aren’t passing the tests because they don’t understand what is being asked of them.
“Syracuse city schools have their hands full,” said Vinciguerra. “A lot of the schools are understaffed and overpopulated and it’s hard to give each kid the attention they deserve. They do the best they can.”
The Syracuse City School District works closely with community-based organizations similar to Yeshua to help refugee students with their transition into American life, according to ESL Specialist Jackie LeRoy.
About 40-50 percent of students in the English as a New Language program in the Syracuse City School District are refugees, according to LeRoy.
“They’re very high achieving, motivated students,” said LeRoy. “They come with this desire to achieve.”
The district receives between nine to fifteen new refugee students every week and 25 schools have programs aimed specifically at helping these students, said LeRoy.
With help from these school-provided programs, along with outside programs, such as those provided by YRM, refugee students often surpass American students academically, noted LeRoy.
“In a prior school year, seven of eight valedictorians and salutatorians in the district were refugee students,” said LeRoy.
At her public high school, Vinciguerra found her heart for helping refugees.
“There was one [refugee] boy who was in my biology class and that is when I realized that these kids don’t have a shot with the system how it is,” said Vinciguerra.
Vinciguerra said that this student had not turned in a single lab because he did not understand the material and the school year was almost over. Through helping him, she realized her love for helping refugee youth.
“To me it’s remarkable what they’re able to do,” said LeRoy referring to what refugee youth are able to achieve with the help from both the school and ministry programs.
YRM does not just support refugee students in their academics. The organization also supports the youth after many young refugees experience bullying in school.
“It takes a lot of time to get them to open up, but I’ve heard many stories of the daily things they face at school,” said Vinciguerra.“A lot of times we just don’t see what these kids go through. They have to grow up so quickly.”
Through the community outreach programs that YRM offers, such as a youth soccer league, the youth refugees are able to build character and learn leadership skills, according to Vinciguerra. This soccer league stands out from other community leagues because a community service element is implemented into the program to teach the kids the importance of serving the community, according to Vinciguerra. On a regular basis, more than 20 volunteers pick up litter in the neighborhood. The children also take regular care of the neighborhood park, do spring cleaning, fall leaf removal, and snow removal during the winter for the elderly and disable living in the community.
“Whenever there’s positive activity, the illegal activity flees,” said Vinciguerra.
“They do great work,” said Sarah Walton, the associate executive director of the Syracuse Northeast Community Center.
Vinciguerra is looking forward to summer where there is more time to run activities for the youth refugees.