How one Somali teenager became a member of the family.

by LSSNCA guest blogger, Sarah Vlazny

Matt and Bridgette were not comfortable with the discourse around refugees and immigrants in the national sphere and decided to do something about it. They had felt called to be foster parents before, and now that their two biological children were teenagers, they decided to explore it further.

Matt says they made the decision the way you fall in love – little by little. They started attending training classes to learn more about foster parenting, and an exercise they did at one of these classes moved them so much, they felt they had made their decision. To put themselves in the mindset of an unaccompanied refugee minor, the instructor had participants write down the five or six things that were most important to them. Then, one by one, they had to decide which they were willing to give up. 

“That was really moving,” said Bridgette. Three months later, they received a call that they had been matched with Yusuf, a 19-year old Somalian refugee.

“It wasn’t glamorous,” says Matt with a chuckle, describing the first few days that Yusuf came to live with his family of four. He and Bridgette describe how Yusuf went from a reluctant house guest to a celebrated member of the family. Now, January 25th is “Yusuf Day” in their household — a day on which they go to Yusuf’s favorite restaurant, give him presents, and watch his choice of movie. This year, Matt’s mother even flew in from Nebraska to celebrate the occasion, as she and Yusuf have grown quite close.

Yusuf and Matt – July 4, 2019

The transition didn’t happen overnight, however. Yusuf was understandably uncomfortable when he first arrived at Matt and Bridgette’s home – both on a judge’s orders and coming from another foster home in which he was largely ignored. Knowing that Yusuf was an adult, Bridgette and Matt understood that he wanted to maintain his independence. They had only a couple of requirements – one being that he join their family together at dinnertime.

At first, Yusuf wanted to cook his own meals, rather than eat what Bridgette cooked for the family. He now eats whatever Bridgette cooks, every night. She says this happened gradually. “One day, I just noticed he wasn’t cooking for himself anymore,” Bridgette says. 

A turning point in their relationship was the family’s road trip to Florida for spring break. Yusuf loved the pool at the house they rented, as he had said he was used to swimming in natural waters, where crocodiles were often a concern. This difference in perspective is part of what Bridgette finds so rewarding about foster parenting. “It shows us a different view of the world we live in. His social experience is completely different from ours. He definitely doesn’t see things the same way we do.”

Bridgette and Matt describe moments of levity that arose from this difference in perspective. On a family trip to Iowa, Yusuf was disappointed by the corn sold at the Iowa State Fair. He had loved the corn he ate growing up, and felt that Americans ruined it by coating it in butter and mayo. Another time, when out to a family dinner, Yusuf spotted a heaping cart of food being rolled around to each table. He said loud enough for the whole restaurant to hear, “This is why Americans are so fat!” 

On a family trip to Iowa.

The second family requirement was that Yusuf read with Bridgette every night after dinner. Yusuf prefers books about famous figures of history, and they’ve taken turns reading about Jefferson and Edison. His improved English has made a difference in his schoolwork, as has Bridgette and Matt’s efforts to show him he is more capable than he thinks he is. 

At Yusuf’s previous school, he was able to get by on Google Translate. At his new high school, he found the classes more challenging. Bridgette says he rose to that challenge. “He’s put in a lot of work this year,” she said. “He got the Google Translate crutch taken away, and he was really proud of his good grades.” Yusuf graduated from high school in June. Although the in-person graduation ceremony was canceled due to COVID-19, Yusuf was proud to see his picture displayed in the on-line ceremony. Like other graduates in the neighborhood, he donned his cap and gown, and drove around the neighborhood waving at neighbors who stood outside to applaud in support.

Bridgette and Matt have tried to do everything they can to support him in his career goals. This includes everything from long talks about his future to talking him through his feelings of frustration with the present.

“It’s really hard for anyone his age to not make decisions in his own life,” Matt said. “A judge decides where he lives and decides when he can leave. I know that when he says he wants to go back to Somalia, it means he’s unhappy. And I take those feelings seriously, and I’ll talk to him about those feelings.” Matt has also tried to help Yusuf formulate a plan for the future.

Yusuf is now a high school graduate!

Yusuf is taking English classes online with Montgomery College. He hopes to find an apprenticeship in a skilled trade, perhaps as an electrician. In the meanwhile, he is seeking part-time work. He is very motivated to send money back home. “It’s been really rewarding to see him get a better sense of himself and his future,” said Matt. 

Bridgette recalls Yusuf’s sense of confidence when she took him skiing. He didn’t want to take lessons, and was determined to figure it out himself. Finally, she persuaded him to take an hour and a half lesson, and by the end of the day, he had ridden the chair lift to the top of a slope. “That sense of confidence, that he can figure it out on his own, got him from where he was to where he is now,” she said. 

She and Matt believe that Yusuf will take that same sense of purpose into his future endeavors, and they look forward to ski trips and competitive cornhole games to come. “It is so rewarding when a child who was once a stranger comes to know you and trust you,” Bridgette said. “It’s also been inspiring to get to know the guidance counselors, social workers and others who have helped him along the way.”

* LSSNCA is happy to serve the DMV with Unaccompanied Refugee Minor foster care programming. Interested in fostering a URM youth? Fill out our inquiry form online and watch our Lunch & Learn conversation with a URM Foster Mom.

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