Haydar Ahmed-Hasan of Somalia studies in a tutoring class at North Side Learning Center. Mike Greenlar | Central Current.

Typing away an essay, he looks up from his screen between sentences to joke around and laugh with other students. When he isn’t working on papers at the North Side Learning Center’s college tutoring room, he’s engaged in conversation, bringing smiles to his friend’s faces.

Haydar Ahmed-Hassan, a liberal arts general studies major at Onondaga Community College, wasn’t always the funny and charismatic friend that everyone at the center knows. His mom, a refugee from Somalia, came here with him when he was 7 years old, just in time for first grade. 

“When I first came here, apparently I was shy, according to my mother,” said Ahmed-Hassan, now 19.  “It’s not like I didn’t want to talk to anybody, it’s just the fact that I didn’t even know the language – that itself made me want to stay as far away from everyone as possible.”

His brother encouraged him to start attending the North Side Learning Center to get help with grammar and punctuation on essays for his English class. Since then, he’s been coming back every day the center is open.

The North Side Learning Center, a nonprofit literacy and after-school learning program, was founded in 2009 by members of the refugee and immigrant community here in Syracuse. 

When Mark Cass, executive director, first began as a volunteer and board member in 2010, he said that the organization prioritized serving the needs of the adults who needed to learn English, but branched out to become a program that tends to the needs of their children as well.

“They always say three things. One: I need to find work. Two: I want to take care of my family, I want to be able to handle my business. Three: I want to support my children” Cass said.

With an increasing demand for the college literacy center, NSLC’s leaders decided to move from the tight and windowless space above the Dollar General on Butternut Street into their current building, a former Catholic school and church. Since the North Side Learning Center moved into 501 Park Street, they’ve been continuously renovating the building to further fulfill the needs of the community. 

When students first approach the center, they are welcomed by a volunteer at the door of the former school. Inside, two stories of classrooms are filled with students, deep in focus on assignments from 5 to 7 p.m., Monday through Thursday. Each one of these classrooms vary by age, from kindergartners to adults. 

Many students come to the center for tutoring help. For the elementary and adult students, the center provides literacy classes that help new refugees who’ve recently arrived in Syracuse. The English as a New Language classroom has two adult classes: one for beginners and another for advanced learners. 

When Ahmed-Hassan first came to Syracuse as a child he didn’t know English. After finding the center, he attended the elementary literacy classes. 

“Everything else just came to me, as any kid would, when a kid comes to learn a new language and to a new place,” Ahmed-Hassan said. “As I grew up here, everything fell into place. I understood it better on a daily basis.”

“We really do encourage relationship-building, beyond just getting homework assignments done,” said Cass. “You get to know each other, and hope people see the possibilities.”

Depending on the time of year, Onondaga Community College also partners with the center to conduct a photography class for high school students as a way to introduce them into the arts. The most recent addition to the center’s extracurricular activities is the Speaking Circle, a speech and debate club for the high schoolers.

While the organization focuses on the educational enrichment of its students, the center is also a place where the students and staff form meaningful relationships within the New American community. 

When she first volunteered at the center as a teacher, Aasiya Sellars, the past NSLC associate director and program coordinator, said she wanted to help this community keep up and get ahead academically. The center, she said, can help offset the limited resources in public schools for New American children. By instructing adults in the literacy program, she helped begin to bridge that first gap. 

Many of the students of the center struggle with grammar and math. They need help with learning skills such as knowing when to use a comma or how to add numbers.

“But also when you add on top of that, some families who are very new are also trying to learn English at the same time,” said Sellars. “Then, those problems start growing more and more in terms of not being able to catch up with the typical grade that they’ve gotten placed in. The more volunteers we have, the more we’re able to give students one on one attention to really see where they are at.”

After working at the center for three years, Sellars went from teaching to coordinating the educational programs.

“I was so enriched by each of the students that I met,” Sellars said, “Since I started this position, I get to interact with so many more students rather than only the adults. It’s fun to interact with the kids up here and see how their day was at school and what they’re doing and what’s the new cartwheel they’re learning and stuff like that.”

On top of skill-building, students are also working together with the volunteers and tutors to accomplish their educational and professional goals.

During the last two semesters, the college tutoring room consisted of students from OCC, Le Moyne College and SUNY Oswego. The room was instructed by Joyce Suslovic with tutors from the local colleges and universities to help students in English, math, science, social science, business and history. 

Yasmin Hassan, 19, attended the center as a second-year OCC student majoring in human services. She began coming to the center in October after friends recommended it and after she met Suslovic.

After graduating OCC this spring, Hassan hopes to transfer to the University of Buffalo. She wants to earn her master’s degree and become a social worker at a school or a hospital. Maintaining her grades is vital for her to get to where she needs to be academically and professionally. 

Born in Nairobi, Kenya, Hassan’s family came to the United States from Somalia with her when she was six months old. Eventually, they ended up in Syracuse.

She utilized the center a few times a week to work on essays and papers, silently focusing on completing each task most days, but also sharing plenty of laughs with her friends in the room. 

“I feel like this semester is the hardest semester for me,” Hassan said. “The workload and a lot of stuff going on… so I feel like when there are a lot of people around you that have goals, it motivates you.”

The center provides a productive atmosphere where students can get their work done. Living in a loud and bustling home, Hassan’s productivity goes down unless she can find a quiet space. 

“My house is really loud, I can’t do work,” Hassan said. “And this is a place where I can just do work.”

Hasssan said she also enjoys  interacting with peers and the tutors in the college room. 

“I think it’s a really good place to come,” said Hassan. “Even if you don’t need help with your homework, just getting your work done and meeting new people and getting to know people in your own community is good.”

For others, the productivity and inclusion at the center is what makes it a hidden gem in the community.

“Anyone is welcome, no matter what your background is, no matter what you do,” said Ahmed-Hassan. “ It’s not so much a what can I do to get in – it’s a what can I get out of this place. No matter what you do here, if you stay on track and actually stay focused on your work, you can guarantee that you will always make progress here.”

The North Side Learning Center is always looking for volunteers, said Cass. As a mostly volunteer-run organization, the center is reliant on its volunteers. There are around 120 volunteers each year for the 250 students, but Cass said the goal is to try to have a tutor for every student. 

“They come with an initial lack of English, but they have so much else to offer in terms of their professional experience, their other lived experiences,” Cass said.

Those interested in volunteering can reach out to Cass at northsidelc@gmail.com.


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