Des Moines Refugee Students Struggle with Virtual Learning


DES MOINES, Iowa — Even before the pandemic hit, Boaz Nkingi spent countless hours helping refugee students in his after school program. Now, 12 hour days have become inevitable for him, in order to meet his community’s growing needs.

As a Congolese refugee himself, Nkingi is familiar with the steep learning curves that come with adapting to a new country and a new education system. Add an unrelenting virus that has caused a large portion of the state’s schools to switch to 100 percent virtual learning, and it only makes the challenges greater.

“Eighty-seven percent of the kids we are serving — their parents do not speak English,” he said. “It’s been very challenging for a lot of those kids to get the support they need.”

With the exception of a few weeks, even days, for some grade levels, Des Moines Public Schools has spent almost entirely of its semester all online. A spokesperson for the district said 21 percent of its students are still learning English as their second language. Nkingi said missing the face-to-face interaction in the first year for new refugee students can be devastating.

“I met two families last week where their kids were talking about how they were excited to get to America and go to school and learn English, but they haven’t been to school yet,” he said. “They have been talking to teachers on Zoom, which is new and it’s been hard for them.”

On top of learning English, Nkingi said the 25 new refugee families he works with are also tasked with learning how to use new technology — a vital skill required for online education.

“When we come here as refugees, understand we come here with nothing. Back home, we don’t have the technology that you guys have here, so they learn from scratch,” he said.

Several programs in the metro area are working to bridge the gap for these families. Nkingi founded a nonprofit called the Iowa Congolese Organization and Center for Healing, or ICOACH, where he runs an after-school program to provide tutoring, meals, and transportation for these students.

However, with roughly 127 kids from across the Des Moines metro and a volunteer staff that has dwindled to a handful because of the pandemic, Nkingi struggles to meet the needs.

“We need help. We need more hands-on. A lot of these kids need one-on-one help, so we need the community to really step up,” he said. “We also need financial support for school materials…everything we need to keep the program alive and running.” 

If you would like to volunteer or donate to help Nkingi and the refugee families he serves, click on this link or email


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