People to Watch: Why an Iowa couple who fled war nurtures refugee children
Sam and Tricia Gabriel came from the same city in Liberia but met in Des Moines. Their fateful meeting has led to magic for African refugee kids. Des Moines Register
Sam Gabriel can still mimic the sound of automatic weapons — rat-a-tat-tat. He was a 7-year-old running as fast as he could while a civil war raged in Liberia.
In that same capital city of Monrovia, a girl he didn't yet know faced similar dangers.
Both ended up in the same Ivory Coast refugee camp, which was riddled with hunger and fights.
Both came to Des Moines as refugees — he eventually attended Valley High School in West Des Moines while she went to Roosevelt High in Des Moines.
They never met. Until one day in the most American of places off 73th Street.
“At the Walmart,” Tricia Gabriel said, laughing. “You can tell when someone is from Liberia.”
Sam and Tricia married in 2011. They had two kids, now ages 9 and 2, while finishing their education at Mercy College of Health Sciences. Sam drives for Uber. Tricia works as a nurse for Calvin Community.
That’s the American dream part: refugees finding each other, growing a family together, and living happily ever after in the suburb of Ankeny.
But they didn’t escape gunfire and witness gruesome death to move across the world and settle in for a night of Netflix.
After work at 4:30 p.m. every weekday, the Gabriels begin a two-hour route, picking up children of mostly African immigrants from all over the metro: Ankeny to Saylor Township, Altoona to Des Moines' east side, up the northeast side to Beaverdale, then down by Merle Hay to Moore Elementary, where everyone piles out.
After two hours of tutoring and soccer and performing arts for the children, it’s back in the vehicle to drop them off and return to their townhome by 10:30 p.m., and go to bed. Saturdays are filled with more soccer.
“I was humbled by their energy,” said Karen Downing, the Valley High School teacher who nominated the Gabriels for the Des Moines Register’s 15 People to Watch in 2019.
In a political climate when immigrants and refugees are often targets of ire, Downing said, this couple has boots on the ground helping them with Genesis Youth Foundation. The nonprofit makes life better here for refugee children, who often don't have money for youth programs.
The Gabriels use donations or their own money for gas or snacks or soccer uniforms for the children.
Sam, 36, ragged and tired, asked himself a few months ago if the sacrifice was worth it. He could take care of his family, his own life, his own finances “and live this American dream.”
“God didn’t have that plan. He said, this is your purpose,” Sam said. “What good would that be for me or Tricia when we know those kids are out there?”
There were 16,679 Iowans in 2016 who were born in Africa, according to the Migration Policy Institute. Sam knows how hard it is for them.
They arrive here to piles of snow. They try to fit in while their parents work long hours — Sam’s mom worked as a hotel housekeeper, his father a janitor.
Sam tried to fit in right away, joining the soccer team. But his parents didn’t have the money for uniforms or to travel to out-of-town games, or transportation to get him to practice.
Tricia had a standard set of clothes that suited her well in Liberia, but not so much in America. She was bullied and mocked.
She was confused over why students talked back to teachers. In Liberia, parents expected teachers to be firm disciplinarians.
She and Sam were miffed that many people didn’t say "hello" or "thank you" while opening a door. They felt like there was no community.
After they met, Tricia learned of Sam’s passion. When he returned from a stint at a South Dakota college, he had heard of young men whose idleness turned to badness — guns, crime and fighting. Younger children were sitting at home like potted plants in front of video games while their parents made a living.
“These kids spend half a day in school bullied for their heritage, so they have to pretend to pick up the American culture,” Sam said. “Then they have to switch at home so there isn’t a lot of conflict.”
He had to do something, so he started with what he knew, bringing young boys together for regular soccer practice. He saw how kids from several African nations blended together over their love of the game. He saw their attitudes change.
Tricia, 29, got involved to support his passion, she said, and added her own twist. She would lead mostly African girls in choir and dance practice as the arts director of programming.
Every night, they would sing, dance and play soccer, throwing in an hour of school lessons and learning games for children between first and ninth grades.
It wasn’t easy. Parents had limited transportation.
“We used our own car to pick them up and our own money for gas and snacks,” Sam said.
They launched the nonprofit in 2014 and figured they would land some grants. It didn’t happen, though DART supplied a van two years ago.
Money still mostly comes through individual donations.
Their energy came from the children.
“They feel like they belong,” Sam said. “That keeps me going.”
One girl was so shy she ran from a room if there were people in it. After she learned dance, she gained confidence. Another girl lacked self-esteem but bloomed after learning math.
"They also give them the opportunity to express, to be free, just to be kids,” said Rohey Sallah, who is on the Genesis board. “You can see the passion in their faces, singing and dancing for others.”
On a recent night, about 30 of the 50 regulars piled into Moore Elementary, children of parents from seven African countries — Liberia, Uganda, Congo, Tanzania, Burundi, Eritrea and Somalia.
“The kids don’t take long to get integrated,” said Josh Kasibbo, a parent to two in the program. “One of my boys is shy and timid. But when he started the program, they shifted him to being a leader. You see the way he speaks now, with confidence. And he is excelling in school.”
Jafar Kini, a native of Eritrea, said parents like him don’t have the school background to help their children.
His son Samowa, 9, was learning to divide 10 by 2, bouncing up and down with his team of boys to win a prize. They were rewarded with pizza and carrots before scrambling to the gym for soccer practice, while the girls performed a traditional African dance mixed with American moves, set to African hip-hop.
Sam and Tricia scurried around the room for two hours, providing a bridge between the two cultures the children try to navigate.
“God allows me to see myself in them,” Sam said. “Everything we all went through to get here.”
About 'People to Watch'
The Des Moines Register's "15 People to Watch in 2019" are movers and shakers, givers and doers. They were chosen by Register news staff from scores of reader nominations. Their stories will run in the newspaper from Dec. 23 to Jan. 6. To read about past People to Watch, visit desmoinesregister.com/peopletowatch.
How to help
To volunteer or donate to Genesis, go to genesisyouthfoundation.org or send a check to Genesis Youth Foundation, P.O. Box 263, Des Moines, Iowa, 50301.
Sam and Tricia Gabriel
BORN: Monrovia, Liberia
EDUCATION: Sam has a degree in public health administration from Mercy College of Health Sciences; Tricia earned her nursing certification at Mercy College of Health Sciences.
OCCUPATION: Sam is an UBER driver, and founder and executive director of Genesis Youth Foundation; Tricia is a nurse, and director of arts programming for Genesis Youth Foundation.
CLAIM TO FAME: Helping children of African immigrants.
FAMILY: Both Sam and Tricia's parents live in the Des Moines area, and they have children ages 9 and 2.
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