When their parents were tragically killed in a car accident in war-torn Afghanistan, Mokhtar Mohammadi and his four younger siblings were left alone and grieving in a refugee camp, unsure of what the future had in store for them. In a hopeful effort to build a new life for themselves, Mohammadi and his siblings applied to immigrate to the United States.
The first few months after resettling in Syracuse proved challenging for them, as the siblings all faced major language barriers and Mohammadi struggled to find work. Having no knowledge of the city or available transportation services only added to the obstacles the family longed to overcome.
“There was a major sense of culture shock when we arrived in Syracuse because everything was so new to us,” said Mohammadi. “We struggled to meet people and find employment opportunities or activities to get involved in.”
After Mohammadi expressed an interest in nature, his caseworker handed him a brochure about the Onondaga Earth Corps (OEC). This organization, which trains and employs inner-city youth to plant trees and maintain green infrastructure within the City of Syracuse, instantly sparked his curiosity.
As soon as he was accepted into the program, Mohammadi dove right into the challenge, eager to learn about the environment and put his learning into practice in the field.
“Despite English being his second language, Mohammadi was able to be productive during community outreach activities,” said Onondaga Earth Corps Executive Director Greg Michel. “His language ability started out very limited, but when he joined the Corps, his commitment to learning and adapting to new ideas propelled him forward enormously.”
By engaging in tree planting, community gardening and urban beautification projects, OEC is empowering youth to be active participants in their communities while learning valuable life skills. Through these hands-on community and environmental service-learning projects, youth are able to experience first-hand the relationship between people and the urban ecosystem.
“Since we started in 2004 as a youth development and employment program, OEC has trained 148 youths between the ages of 14 and 25 living in the city of Syracuse,” said Michel. “When these kids are outdoors and they’re seeing, touching, feeling, they learn in different ways.”
OEC employs 15- to 18-year-olds in its youth program and 19- to 25-year-olds in its young adult program. Participants are given the opportunity to look at the scientific impacts of trees through experiments and execute projects of their own by identifying an issue to research. This provides them with the chance to apply what they’ve learned by using scientific methods. The youth also engage with neighborhood and community groups to identify homeowners that want trees, lead community volunteers in tree plantings, and disseminate information about the benefits of trees and proper tree care.
As crew sizes expanded over the years, OEC employees found that transporting the teams to planting sites throughout the city had become more difficult. Limited to only two small pickup trucks and any additional vehicles they could borrow hindered the crews from planting a desired 1,000 trees in 2014. With the help of a Community Foundation grant, the OEC was able to purchase a new 12-passenger van to shuttle crew members to and from their planting and work sites.
“We were very limited in our ability to shuttle folks around for plantings and didn’t have the capacity to carry out all our programs,” said Michel. “The Community Foundation grant helped us increase the number of youth being transported to different sites from 20 to 40 at a time.”
Mohammadi has now advanced to serving as a Crew Leader on the Corps urban forestry projects. In addition to mentoring the youth currently in the program, Mohammadi is utilizing his new skills to work at a local greenhouse and attend college to further his education in environmental science. He and his family moved from a temporary residence into a stable home and have integrated well into the community.
“The Onondaga Earth Corps helped me very much in my personal life,” said Mohammadi. “It wasn’t just a job; it was a job and educational opportunity. My supervisors helped me get into college among many other things. In addition to job skills, I learned life skills, teamwork, leadership skills, and lots of information about trees including tree identification, the environment, urban forests, the stormwater system in Syracuse, and more.”
Upon completing his time with the program last year, Mohammadi was selected among a national pool of applicants to receive the Corps Network Corpsmember of the Year Award, recognizing the difference he has made in his community and the inspiration he has given his peers, despite the challenges he has endured.
Even as he moves on to the next stages of his life, he says he will always cherish his roots at OEC.
“That is one thing that the Corps taught me that I will never forget – the impact one tree can make on the community,” he said.