One Camden youngster wondered aloud whether a visitor from Haiti had Ebola.

Other international participants in the UrbanPromise ministry's Camden fellowship program also have been startled by challenging, if not impertinent, questions from city kids.

But it turns out the fellows themselves arrived with some preconceptions.

The city "has been a surprise," says Justine Nagawa, 24, of Uganda. "When you hear about America, you don't hear about places like this. You hear that America is a paradise."

Says James Mureithi, who's 33 and grew up in rural Kenya, "America is a great, great country, but Camden is a bit harsh in terms of the environment. And I can see how that environment has an impact on the students."

I meet Nagawa and Mureithi, along with Alex Myril and Providence Chigwenembe, at UrbanPromise headquarters in East Camden, where the visitors live, help - and learn from - the children who call one of the poorest cities in America home.

The busy campus on both the city and Pennsauken sides of 36th Street near Federal includes elementary, middle, and high school classrooms for about 175 students. UrbanPromise also provides after-school programs.

"When I came here, I didn't know" much about Camden, Nagawa says. "But there's a real sense of community. People are willing to help and encourage one another."

Since its founding in a Camden church basement in 1988, UrbanPromise has become a provider of faith-based educational and youth development programs in a half-dozen U.S. cities, as well as in Uganda, Malawi, Honduras, and Canada.

"My job is to find up-and-coming young leaders around the world," says Nadia VanderKuip, director of the UrbanPromise International School of Leadership. The fellowship program she oversees has trained about 50 young adults from the United States and abroad.

Nagawa, Mureithi, Myril, and Chigwenembe are among the 14 current fellows, 12 of whom are enrolled in a graduate degree program at Eastern University in St. Davids. UrbanPromise pays their tuition.

"The fellows have run programs in their home countries, which is why they were selected," VanderKuip notes. "They've already been doing amazing things, but we want to give them more tools."

With coursework in management, finance, and other front-office disciplines, the master's degree in organizational leadership offers "a huge foundation" for fellows to build upon when they return home.

"Running a program is a lot different from running an entire organization," notes VanderKuip.

In Malawi, Chigwenembe, 25, has taught English in UrbanPromise high schools and also has developed an empowerment program for girls.

"Girls are second-class citizens there," she says. "Only 7 percent of girls graduate from high school, and only 1 percent from college. I'm one of the 1 percent."

Chigwenembe sees deep differences between students here and those back home; urban American kids, she says, are more likely to question authority.

While this is a challenge in the classroom, it also can lead to collaboration and creativity, she says. "We can work on [a problem] together and maybe make changes together."

Since arriving in Camden from Haiti in August, Myril, 29, has connected with students in an after-school program in North Camden.

At first, some refused to cooperate, saying they couldn't understand his English (which is rather good). And there was the boy who questioned him about Ebola.

Now Myril is leading a student choir. The singers recently performed before an audience of 600 at an UrbanPromise event.

"There is hope here," says Nagawa, who came to Camden in August as well and works at the same after-school site. "Most of these kids just know about Camden. But they want to know" about the world.

Mureithi and Chigwenembe, both second-year fellows, will make thesis presentations to the UrbanPromise board, which will consider funding their home-country programs.

Mureithi is looking to start the first UrbanPromise after-school program in Kenya. He hopes to focus on computer training - so that students can be "digitally equipped" for employment and other opportunities.

"What we're doing is supporting and resourcing young leaders to go home and make change," says VanderKuip.

"We believe Africans will change Africa, Haitians will change Haiti, and local leaders will change local communities around the world."

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