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Jamaica mentor program hopes to help fight racism

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The New American Partnership, an...

By Courtney Dentch

A new mentoring program is aimed at pairing children of immigrants, particularly of Middle Eastern descent, with adults from similar ethnic backgrounds to help them assimilate into American society and fight prejudice.

The New American Partnership, an offshoot of the Big Brothers Big Sisters program and based in Jamaica, was created in December to combat racism and study the effects of pairing children and adults with similar backgrounds vs. pairs with different racial and ethnic backgrounds, said Tamanna Vaswani, coordinator of program.

Although there is room in the program for 50 pairs of children, only nine matches have been made so far, Vaswani said. The study program calls for 25 pairs to be of similar backgrounds and 25 of mixed backgrounds, but of the nine only three are of similar backgrounds, Vaswani said.

“We’re actively recruiting, trying to get the word out,” she said, attributing the delay to the lengthy application process. Both the children, who are between 7 and 17, and the adults, who must be over age 21, are screened and interviewed, and Big Brother Big Sister tries to match “bigs,” or adults and “littles,” or children, with similar interests, Vaswani said.

The study is the first of its kind in the nation, and the organization chose to start in Queens because of the borough’s diversity, Vaswani said. The study will gauge the effects of the different relationships at the end of a year, Vaswani said.

“We’re trying to find out if at the end of one year if (having a similar background) does indeed make a difference or if it’s just the influence of a caring adult that makes difference,” she said.

If the study shows that matches with similar pairs are more beneficial for the children, Big Brother Big Sister plans to replicate the program across the country, Vaswani said.

The program is geared toward new immigrants because the organization thought they might be facing more difficulties assimilating into American society, especially after the Sept. 11 attacks, Vaswani said. The program is especially hoping to enlist children of Middle Eastern descent, she said.

“We’re thinking that these are the populations that may be targeted,” she said.

The program only has two such children, one Muslim and one from Bangladesh, Vaswani said. The Muslim child told the organization that she has faced prejudice that forced her to change schools after Sept. 11 and that her parents are fearful about telling people their religion, Vaswani said.

Language and traditions may also be a factor, and the program organizers hope that parents will feel more confident about allowing their children to participate if they are spending time with someone from a similar background, Vaswani said.

“It’s difficult because their parents have such different value systems from the one they’re being raised in,” she said. “That’s one of reasons they’re matching first-generation adults with first-generation children.”

The pairs meet for eight hours a month and engage in low-cost activities that give the two a chance to talk, Vaswani said.

“It’s enough time to start to build a relationship and a commitment while exposing the child to new experiences,” she said.

The pairs have gone to parks, museums, the circus, and more, Vaswani said.

Although it is too soon to tell whether similar background matches are having an effect on the relationship, Vaswani said the program is off to a good start.

“The parents are very excited to have their kids have the support,” she said. “The idea is that someone who’s totally American can help a new immigrant adjust just as well as some one who’s new themselves.”

Reach reporter Courtney Dentch by e-mail at TimesLedger@aol.com, or by phone at 229-0300, Ext. 138.

Posted 7:03 pm, October 10, 2011
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