CRYSTALS: An ‘auntie’ to dozens, Swahili outreach worker helps new families find their way

Ahead of the Crystal Apple Awards on Feb. 10, Salem Reporter is profiling several educators nominated in 2023. The awards are presented by the McLaran Leadership Foundation and the Salem Area Chamber of Commerce at the Salem Convention Center. Tickets are sold out.

It’s hard to find someone cheering louder than Rahel Owenya at a high school graduation.

It will be years before her next biological child graduates, but Owenya attends every ceremony for the students she works with, after making sure caps and gowns were ordered on time.

“I get to be an auntie for the family,” she said.

Owenya, 46, is the sole native Swahili speaker employed by the Salem-Keizer School District, playing the role of translator, social worker, tutor, transportation service and whatever else Swahili-speaking families might need.

She works with about 40 students from preschool through high school. Her charges are mostly east African refugees who have newly arrived in the U.S., speaking little or no English and unfamiliar with the school system.

“When you take the kids in the classroom the first day, you get to sit with them,” she said. “Then after a week, they’re studying, going, moving themselves, you know, they don’t need you when you pop up … after three months, they mingle with everybody else. To see the growth and the determination. That’s what makes you feel like, ‘I want to be part of it.’”

When the school district sends out a message to parents saying school is starting late due to ice on the roads, Owenya translates it into Swahili. If a student isn’t coming to school regularly, or isn’t eating lunch, schools contact her and ask her to check in.

Owenya moved to Salem from Tanzania in 2006. She and her husband had previously lived here in 2001 while he was studying at Willamette University.

She worked in a pediatric clinic focused on health information and is certified as a medical interpreter in Swahili.

In 2020, a friend who had been working as the district’s Swahili outreach person decided to become a teacher.

“She didn’t want to leave the parents with no support. So she begged me to come and work,” Owenya said with a laugh.

In the years since, she’s built a reputation for the care she shows students and families and her willingness to help with any problem that might arise.

“Teachers and other staff members have commented on her ‘magic way‘ she has with these students. Her positive presence alone calms and reassures students and staff to make them feel safe and valued,” wrote Karen Macdonald, program associate for the district’s English learner program, in Owenya’s Crystal Apple nomination packet.

Owenya visits homes to check on students, taking note of anything that might prove an obstacle to their success in school or families settling into life in the U.S.

Once, she recalled walking into a house and being hit with a blast of hot air. The parents, accustomed to much warmer climate, had the thermostat set to 85 degrees.

“You’re gonna pay so much. Let’s slow this down,” she remembered telling them.

Sometimes, she finds students aren’t eating at school because they’re used to a different diet and aren’t familiar with American staples like mashed potatoes served in the school cafeteria. She’ll help explain new foods to families or introduce them so they feel more comfortable eating.

“Student faces light up when they see Rahel. She holds them to a high standard and has

high expectations of them. She holds them accountable to be at school,” wrote Sara Zaccari, school enrollment coordinator for Salem for Refugees, who nominated Owenya for the Crystal Apple.

Owenya works closely with Salem for Refugees and tries to set students up with tutors through the organization. She said she hoped her Crystal Apple nomination would encourage more people to volunteer as tutors.

Seeing new families arrive and knowing she gets to work with them is her favorite part of the job.

“You see the fear, the worry, the excitement, and then you have to figure out which part I’m going to help them out,” Owenya said. 

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.


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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.