Siraji Hassan used to live in fear that at any moment he could run out of water or be eaten by a roaming animal.
Years after fleeing bitter ethnic conflict as a Somali Bantu refugee, the Pittsburgh Allderdice High School student exudes American adolescence: he dons a red baseball cap, whips out his iPhone to text his friends and doesn't always enjoy his Spanish homework.
But Siraji, 17, and his family didn't acclimate to Pittsburgh on their own.
Twice a week, University of Pittsburgh student volunteers -- who are all part of a student organization called "Keep It Real" -- mentor Somali Bantu refugees like Siraji and his family across the city in Northview Heights and other parts of the North Side, Sharpsburg and Lawrenceville.
Founded in 2004, Keep It Real has about 70 active members who do everything from tutoring to helping families navigate their utility bills.
Keep It Real has been selected for the Team Award as part of the Jefferson Awards for Public Service for 2012, which celebrates volunteerism and community service. The team will be recognized at a public awards presentation on April 29 at 7 p.m. at Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland.
The Jefferson program is administered locally by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette with sponsorship by Highmark, BNY Mellon, The Pittsburgh Foundation and the Heinz Endowments.
Early on, student volunteers primarily helped families acclimate to an unfamiliar cultural context, but as students have built relationships with the refugees, the distinction between volunteer and family member has become blurred.
"There was just a lot of cultural differences we needed to navigate: things like dealing with landlords, or the cable company or electric company," said former Keep It Real president Brigette Koreny.
Meaningful relationships have developed out of those early interactions, according to current Keep It Real president Atif Mustafa.
"We're tutors, but we're also mentors and big-brother big-sister figures," Mr. Mustafa said, noting that he invited Siraji to his home in Rochester, N.Y., to introduce him to his parents. "I've been with the same family for the past four years ... that's a lifelong relationship."
The Somali Bantu parents, who have fought to get into the U.S., are frequently illiterate upon arrival, Mr. Mustafa said.
But the children, some of whom take ESL classes, often transform into interpreters -- and even English teachers -- for their parents.
"One of the biggest things is the fact that the kids can communicate with us," Mr. Mustafa said, noting that Siraji often translates so he can communicate with Siraji's mother, Halima Hassan.
But if you ask Ms. Hassan about Mr. Mustafa, or what she thinks of Keep It Real, she'll tell you that they aren't just volunteers who show up for a couple of hours a week.
"They're not tutors. They're my kids," said Ms. Hassan, 39, with translation help from Siraji.
When asked about the students she has met, her tone conveys a simultaneous sense of gratitude and deep sadness about the circumstances of their flight from Africa.
"If I start the story about all of our struggles, you will be here for hours and burst into tears," Ms. Hassan said.
She wept when she began to describe how she escaped the tribalism and war that consumed her country, "When we were fleeing ... I had to give [my children] my urine to survive."
But even though they've made it to Pittsburgh, the life they've found in the U.S. isn't without its struggles.
Siraji's trek to Allderdice involves waking up at 4:30 a.m. and transferring buses to make it across town by 7:30, and their home in Northview Heights is sometimes the site of violence.
When passing through a security checkpoint in front of their home, the guard cautioned that someone had been stabbed with a fork earlier in the day. "Don't be afraid to call the police," he said. "Always know where you are."
Still, Siraji and his family have managed to stay upbeat.
When asked what it was like moving to the U.S. after living in a refugee camp, Ms. Hassan said, "I'm living a good life with my kids. My oldest son has a high school diploma."
Mr. Mustafa said that like his mother, Siraji is optimistic. "[Siraji] literally lives in the projects with 10 other people in his house," he said. "They're always happy and enjoying themselves. It really put things in perspective."
Eric Hartman co-founded Keep It Real as a Ph.D. student at Pitt's Graduate School for Public and International Affairs. The organization grew out of a service learning course he taught.
He saw an opportunity to engage the refugee community when he learned that nearly 200 Somali Bantu families were being resettled in Pittsburgh.
"Service learning at its best involves taking what is really a profound amount of human potential inside of universities and applying a lot of their learning to serve community goals," Mr. Hartman, 36, said.
What started as a highly tailored experience through a service learning class quickly grew into a much larger organization, entirely operated by students.
"I really pushed the students in the course to design an organization that would continue on its own," Mr. Hartman said. "I thought they could really do something special if they owned it completely."
Mr. Mustafa said that students take on all of the administrative responsibilities of running the organization, including securing funding from Pitt's Student Government Board for the cost of shuttling students to their host families.
"Most people would just assume there's someone in the [William Pitt Union] setting this up and students just show up," Ms. Koreny, a former Keep It Real president said.
But despite the work associated with growing the organization, Ms. Koreny said she always enjoyed it.
"The thing that keeps you coming back is that no matter how stressed you are, when they run up and give you a hug and you see the look on their face when they're happy to see you, that makes it worth it."
Over the past eight years, the organization has changed -- in part because a new generation of Somali Bantu children have no memory of their narrow escape and have grown up with opportunities unknown to their parents and older siblings.
"At first, when Keep It Real began, it was a much tougher struggle," Mr. Mustafa said. "Education was a foreign concept. It wasn't really valued. The kids didn't dream of going to college. But as Keep It Real has helped them assimilate to life in Pittsburgh, they've started to understand the importance of it."
The new generation of Somali Bantu children -- who are growing up in Pittsburgh -- do not completely share their parents' or older sibling's cultural identity.
At one point, Siraji yelled over to one of his younger brothers, "You guys don't even know where Africa is at. You were born here."
And while sharp differences in upbringing may create minor rifts between Siraji and his younger siblings, both Siraji and his mother are relieved that the next generation won't have to fear for their basic human safety.
"Many people died walking," Siraji wrote in a speech he delivered at his naturalization ceremony about a year ago at Allderdice. "People starved, died of thirst or were eaten by animals. ... But I can proudly say that I am here and will soon call myself an American."
Alex Zimmerman: email@example.com or 412-263-3909 or on Twitter @AGZimmerman.