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South Ann Street porches are makeshift classroom for refugee kids unable to go to school

It helped that Laura Kanagy was a former teacher.

But spotty Wi-Fi and glitchy iPads frustrated learning Tuesday on three South Ann Street porches basking in morning sunlight.

With instruction in the School District of Lancaster happening online only, Kanagy, of East Orange Street, turned the porches into a makeshift classroom for five Congolese refugees, ages 6 to 18.

The young newcomers, their parents and two older siblings came to Lancaster in March from a refugee camp in Rwanda. All need to learn English, but because of COVID-19, the children have yet to step inside a school.

Their parents, Javan Rwamuningi and Eniade Mupenzi, both 51, work the overnight shift at the Urban Outfitters distribution center in Gap and sleep during the day. On getting home, the father makes sure his children’s iPads are charging.

It was mid-morning Tuesday, and the only child who wasn’t having trouble with an iPad was 10-year-old Promesse Nkurunziza.

Kanagy, whose own children are 7 and 5, worked with 6-year-old Nyiramahirwe Uwase.

“This porch is often stronger,” said Kanagy, settling beside the kindergartner on the middle porch and hoping for a robust wifi signal for her iPad.

The girl was scheduled for an online lesson with a teacher from Washington Elementary. Failure to log in meant the teacher would mark her absent.

“We had her Zoom link a second ago,” Kanagy said. “Now I can’t find it.”

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Nyiramahirwe Uwase, 6, uses an iPad for school work on a South Ann Street porch on Sept. 8, 2020.

Team effort

Meanwhile, other volunteers worked with the other students.

Elena Seiffert is a former staffer with Church World Service. She sat with Divine Uwajeneza, 18, and Joyeuse Uwamahoro, 15, as they tried to do assignments ahead of a Zoom class with a McCaskey High School teacher later in the morning.

Also helping were Heidi Wert, who lives at the middle house and works the evening shift making yogurt at Fiddle Creek Diary near Quarryville, and Megan Heinly, of College Avenue, recently back from a volunteer position in Bolivia.

“Mom!” a child called from the yard. It was second-grader Eliana Hoover, Kanagy’s 7-year-old daughter, who had been working on her iPad on a chair between the porches.

“Eliana, I will totally sit with you in a second,” Kanagy promised. “As soon as she is on (referring to Nyiramahirwe), I can concentrate on helping you.”

But Wert checked on Eliana as Kanagy continued to struggle with the kindergartner’s laptop. Kanagy’s frustration was growing.

“Loading, loading, loading,” Kanagy said, watching the spinning circle of internet lag. “So, whenever we have problems, we ask Reponse.”

Kanagy discovered during the first week of virtual school that 12-year-old Reponse Nshimiyimana had a knack for solving iPad problems.

But a connection issue Tuesday had kept even Reponse offline all morning. Heinly called her tech-savvy husband for advice.

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Alain Bushwtei, 11, left, chuckles as volunteer Laura Kanagy leads Promeese Nkurunziza, 10, in jumping jacks on a South Ann Street porch on Sept. 8, 2020.

Kanagy soon turned her attention to the unconnected iPad of Alain Bushwati, a sixth-grader from the neighborhood and part of the learning pod. Alain rode off on his bike while Kanagy tried to log in.

Meanwhile, a Jack & Jill ice cream delivery truck parked in front of Torres’ corner grocery and kept its engine thrumming.

A neighbor, Daryl Yoder-Bontrager, stopped by with grapes and bananas for the kids. Alain returned with a package of cookies.

So it went.

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Volunteer Megan Heinly helps Joyeuse Uwamahoro, 15, with an iPad issue on a South Ann Street porch on Sept. 8, 2020.

Long day

Before leaving at 10:55 a.m., Heinly solved the issue with Reponse’s iPad.

“Hurray!” Kanagy said.

Heinly said Reponse is frustrated because he wants to learn. Her concern extended to Promesse.

“He was connected for the whole day, but he needs one-on-one help to understand what is going on,” she said. “The sad thing is some of these kids, they really, really want to learn, and they’ve never gotten to be in school.”

Heading into the afternoon, Kanagy and Wert were the last volunteers left.

“You’re in!” Kanagy said. when a Zoom link suddenly cooperated for 18-year-old Divine.

“Now, the little ones,” Kanagy said, turning back to Promesse, who needed to use his iPad, its battery running low, to photograph items of specific colors.

Kanagy handed Nyiramahirwe’s iPad to Wert, saying, “She needs to do a video.”

“Meanwhile, my kid is doing who knows what,” Kanagy said.

And where was Alain? He was missing a Zoom lesson.

“Promeese, get your iPad,” Kanagy called out. “You’re on Zoom now. It’s 12:30.”

Meanwhile, the teen girls had left the porch with their Zoom lesson going on.

The teacher on Zoom was saying, “The last thing we’re going to do today …”

“Is lose your mind,” Wert said, completing the teacher’s sentence.

“Too late,” Kanagy said.

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Sisters Joyeuse Uwamahoro, 15, left, and Divine Umajeneza, 18, celebrate a correct answer on a quiz taken on an iPad on a South Ann Street porch on Sept. 8, 2020.