One of the most valuable lessons Ryan Sarafolean has clung to from his study abroad experience in Kenya is the power of relationship building. This lesson allowed him to build lasting ties to the people of Kenya and led him to establish an international development foundation that supports a free secondary school for girls in the Kibera slums of Nairobi.
Sarafolean studied on the Minnesota Studies in International Development (MSID) program in Kenya during fall semester 2006. The program focuses on international development with a hands-on approach that involves field experience, homestays and internships.
MSID Kenya proved to be a great fit for him personally and academically: “I wanted something with more purpose. That would kind of push boundaries and my comfort zone,” he said. “I found the MSID program and it was exactly what I wanted in that sense… MSID is about planting a seed. It’s a catalyst. They can offer a new perspective on how to view international development because the have a great staff.”
It’s been five years since he returned from his study abroad experience, but he continues to strengthen his connection with Kenya through his volunteer work with the Kibera Girls Soccer Academy and his employment in Minneapolis at CommonBond Communities, an affordable housing agency that provides tutoring and mentoring, primarily to East African immigrants.
It was on a quest for live music in Nairobi in the fall of 2006 that Sarafolean first met Abdul Kassim and learned of his plan to establish a girls soccer academy in the slums. “We heard there was live music in this place in Kibera, and as ridiculous, dumb 21-year-olds thinking you're invincible, going into the slums at night seemed like a perfect idea for music,” he said.
Kassim, born and raised in Kibera, was looking for a way to engage young women who had few opportunities in the community. Prostitution, abuse and forced early marriage are just a few of the struggles young women in Kibera face. His plan began as little more than a soccer club, but shortly after starting the program, it became clear to Kassim that education had to be a part of it. That's when a chance meeting with a foreigner in a bar changed both of their lives.
Kassim and Sarafolean agreed to meet up the following week to see how a few students on the MSID program could contribute. Abdul laid out the plan ahead while giving them a tour through Kibera. Not once were the students solicited for money, so they took the initiative to ask Abdul what it would take to get a school up and running. When the answer was a few hundred dollars, Sarafolean and his friends pooled it together, bought the supplies and helped build the first school shortly thereafter. In a weekend, they put up a one-room schoolhouse in the central area of Kibera. Two weeks later, they had 11 students and two volunteer teachers.
After the first year and a half of its existence, a large donation allowed them to relocate the school to a quieter, safer part of Kibera and build a larger facility that includes a science lab, computers, and space for various clubs and activities. The academy now serves more than 120 students with 10 staff and provides meals to the students, as well as books, materials and exam fees required by the Kenyan educational system.
Sarafolean has continued his support of the academy since returning from MSID. And in 2009, he formalized his support by establishing the KGSA Foundation, a non-profit which works to empower people living in poverty around the world by providing assistance to build sustainable solutions for themselves. Their pilot program and inspiration has been Kassim’s Kibera Girls Soccer Academy.
“It wasn't us trying to implement what education should be. It wasn't about trying to dictate the terms of this,” Sarafolean said of the process. “We were simply trying to provide resources so they could take control of the community.”
Sarafolean’s main objectives recently have focused on fundraising and resource acquisition to keep the school thriving. “The goal right now is to create enough income-generating opportunities to create a financially sustainable school,” he said. “So that Abdul and the girls can run and operate the school as they see fit.”
Sarafolean's concept of sustainable, community-based international development began to take shape during his time on the MSID program and continues to inform his involvement both in his work with the KGSA Foundation and in his job at CommonBond, where he is involved primarily with youth programming. Most of the kids he works with at CommonBond are east African immigrants, and he feels his experience with MSID informs how he does his job. “It's really interesting to now be on the flip side of things and see the struggles and barriers and challenges that East African immigrants have coming into the States,” he said. “MSID has given me an understanding as to where they're coming from and the way in which they're used to interacting and the expectations of community and what that means.”
The revelations fostered by MSID combined with his experience with the KGSA Foundation have caused him to take a different approach to development work. “I think it really comes down to relationship building,” he said. “And recognizing where people are at. It comes down to taking direction from those people who are directly affected.”
Since CommonBond is also supportive of his volunteer work, he's able to return to Kenya semi-regularly to check in with Kibera Girls Soccer Academy. He hopes to get to a point in the near future where his visits are purely for pleasure, with the school becoming self-sustaining. In the meantime, he's also planning to enter graduate school to earn a dual master's degree in social work and international development.
“Too often, development work is us sweeping in and delivering a plan and leaving. Then wondering why it's not sustainable,” he said. “We're trying to at least offer a small model of how it can be different. What we're doing now is an effective model because it was birthed out of relationships. We didn't rush into anything. It's taken 5 years to get us to this place now, but we're at a really great place, and we're doing a lot of work that is changing lives. And we're getting to a place where we can start to say this is sustainable.”
Learn more about the KGSA Foundation, Sarafolean’s volunteer work, and the Kibera Girls Soccer Academy.