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A slain refugee was set to start preschool Monday. Despite tragedy, staffers carry hope.

Joy Hansel and Allison Yawczak are part of the early childhood education staff at the Learning Lab in Garden City. They work with many refugee children ready to begin their new life in Idaho.
Joy Hansel and Allison Yawczak are part of the early childhood education staff at the Learning Lab in Garden City. They work with many refugee children ready to begin their new life in Idaho. doswald@idahostatesman.com

Each and every cubby within the preschool classroom at the Learning Lab proudly bears a student's name — it becomes a space children can call their own.

The literacy education center for low-income families features a large map in the hallway to show each student's home country. It's threaded with colored pieces of yarn, with pushpins to hold them in place on their respective homes.

Students, children and adults come from all over the world. There are pushpins in Brazil, Turkey, Ethiopia and Japan; there are also pushpins representing people who come from Boise.

Summer classes at the Learning Lab begin Monday, but the row of cubbies will be missing one well-recognized name.

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A world map at the Learning Lab in Garden City shows the locations where the many different refugee children started their story before arriving in Idaho. Each string leads to a family photo on the border of the map. Darin Oswald doswald@idahostatesman.com

Ruya Kadir was celebrating her third birthday last Saturday when she was killed in a stabbing rampage at the Wylie Street Station Apartments — an attack that sent shock through the refugee community and Boise, and made national headlines. Ruya, known by her teachers for her charisma and confidence, would have started preschool classes at the Learning Lab next week. Her mother, Bifituu, is a student there, too.

When students file back in for the first time since mid-May, Stephanie Booe, who was one of Ruya's teachers, will have a heavy heart. Having built unique relationships with families, the news has hit staffers hard.

But Booe and her fellow teachers also will have resolve.

"Monday's going to be hard," Booe said, tears welling up in her eyes. "We're going to do this in memory of her. We're going to be there for those kids Monday morning."

Filling a need

The Learning Lab started as a small operation of one teacher and four students. Its goal was to provide basic literacy for workers in the 1990s, according to interim executive director Monique Smith. The operation kept growing as Boise's population grew. As more and more immigrants came to Boise, the Learning Lab's services became more crucial.

Today, there are 13 full-time staffers and about 200 volunteers, Smith said.

"For as many students that come here, there's as many reasons (for why they come)," Smith said. "We're just trying to meet the needs of the Boise community."

Children up to 5 years old can attend classes, each of which is a 2 1/2-hour session. Adults of all ages attend classes in a different wing of the building at the same time. While children learn through play, parents work with tutors and on computers to improve the specific skills they need. Sessions are divided into trimesters; the summer program runs through August, the fall program runs through December, and the spring session lasts through May.

During the final 30 minutes of class, adults file into their respective child's classroom, where the families interact and socialize together.

Every family who attends the Learning Lab is there for a singular reason: to gain the skills needed to be successful in the United States, regardless of where they come from.

That was the case with the Kadir family, who began attending classes last April at the Boise Library at Collister, just minutes away from their apartment complex.

Bifituu, originally from Ethiopia, arrived in the United States in 2015; her husband remains in Turkey awaiting a visa. As many others do, Bifituu began attending the Learning Lab to better position her and her daughter for success.

Beyond the basics of learning is a more important task for instructors: instilling confidence in the parents that they are raising their children to the best of their abilities.

Having a breakthrough

Allison Yawczak, a member of the Learning Lab's early-child team, was one of Ruya's teachers. She best remembers a confidence unmatched by most 2-year-olds.

Yawczak said she always knew when Ruya was entering the building: She would click open the door and slowly make her way to the room, but not before peeking from around the corner to make sure everyone was watching her entrance.

In a conference room, Yawczak fondly imitated Ruya's confident strut, much to the delight of her co-workers. They were sitting at the same table where staffers sat and cried when they learned Ruya had died in a Salt Lake City hospital after the attack.

Learning Lab staffers remember Ruya's favorite classroom toys: Play-Doh and baby dolls. If teachers got too loud, Ruya would tell them to be quiet because "the baby is sleeping," Yawczak remembered. They also spoke of Bifituu's love of baking cakes and showing staff pictures.

"Ruya would enter a room. It was like (supermodel) Naomi Campbell walked in the room," Yawczak said. "She could pull off the short haircut, the pink and sequins, the ribbons on the shoes."

Bifituu Kadir remembers her only child, 3-year-old daughter Ruya Kadir. She was among six children and three adults stabbed at her birthday party Saturday, June 30 and died the next day.

Bifituu would come to staff and ask what she could do to make her daughter be a better listener, Yawczak said. Bifituu wanted to give the world to her daughter; that could make disciplining hard, Yawczak said. Bifituu would tell Yawczak that Ruya listened only to them.

But Booe and Yawczak would always tell Bifituu the same thing: that she is the best parent for Ruya, the only one she can truly learn from.

And, after more than a year of working, the staff at Learning Lab was proud to say Ruya was a changed girl, and Bifituu a changed woman. They finally had their breakthrough.

Hope for the future

Those breakthroughs, each a personalized and unique struggle, are why the staff comes in day after day. The relationships they build supersede a classroom.

"We have to touch on the resilience, not just of Bifituu, but of all of our immigrants and refugees. They are here because they are tenacious and resilient," Smith said. "They (have) weathered so many things that none of us can even imagine. They are strong people."

The Learning Lab staff has a unique grasp on who their students are. They know them as not just students, but as people. That's what makes Saturday's tragedy so difficult.

"(Bifituu) just wanted the best for Ruya," family literacy team leader Joy Hansel said. "She wanted nothing but the world for her."

But in times such as this, the progress staff saw between Bifituu and Ruya provides hope for the future.

It's a hope that the rest of the students at the Learning Lab will flourish, develop and reach their goals, whatever they may be. And while the results of everything taught in the classroom might not resonate with a student immediately, there is always the hope that, if nothing else, they helped plant a seed of infinite potential.

"Just seeing the looks on their faces," Booe said. "When they reach that goal, how do you put that into words?"

On Monday, dozens of new seeds will be planted. And staffers will embrace those children and adults with firm hugs and wide smiles.

"What you're planting may not sprout for years. ... And that's the challenge of it sometimes, what am I doing?" Smith said. "It's just not immediate sometimes. But I think every teacher would say that there's a big heaping of hope."

Follow more of our reporting on Boise's Mass Stabbing

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