A shut­tered YMCA cre­ated an opening for a group of young ac­tivists.

Milwaukee Magazine - - Content - BY ZACH BROOKE

A South Side cen­ter is back from the brink.

WHEN THE SOUTH SHORE YMCA closed in 2015, the south­ern end of Mil­wau­kee County took the blow hard. En­ter Saif Tarawneh and a Chicago-based non­profit group called Youth in Mo­tion – com­posed pri­mar­ily of young Balkan-Amer­i­cans – which ac­quired the fa­cil­ity and re­opened it to the gen­eral pub­lic. Tarawneh, a 24-year-old of Jor­da­nian and Turk­ish de­scent, serves as Youth in Mo­tion’s ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor and does a lit­tle bit of ev­ery­thing, from hir­ing em­ploy­ees to in­stalling new car­pet­ing. The res­ur­rected fa­cil­ity is some­thing of a Y 2.0, with a swim­ming pool, work­out ar­eas and other fa­cil­i­ties, plus 1,200 mem­bers, to date.

HOW LARGE IS THE BALKAN COM­MU­NITY IN MIL­WAU­KEE? The Balkan re­gion con­sists of about 13 to 14 coun­tries. You have all those com­mu­ni­ties here. You have a small pocket of Bos­ni­ans. You have a very big pocket of Ser­bians, with a very strong church in this area. You have a lot of Al­ba­ni­ans who work at Pa­trick Cu­dahy. You also have a small Turk­ish com­mu­nity.

WHAT EX­ACTLY IS YOUTH IN MO­TION? Youth in Mo­tion started in Chicago with a group of col­lege kids from dif­fer­ent back­grounds, the ma­jor­ity of them Balkan. But it’s open to ev­ery­one, no mat­ter their eth­nic­ity or back­ground. We did not want to push any sort of agenda. It was ba­si­cally a bunch of kids who wanted to make so­ci­ety and the world around them bet­ter. A bunch of hip­sters.

HOW DID YOU HEAR ABOUT THE FA­CIL­ITY? One day, we re­ceived a phone call from a donor [and Mil­wau­kee busi­ness­man], Salih Pasa Ece. He said, “There’s a build­ing fore­closed in my area. I think it’s worth check­ing out.” He was will­ing to put up a big chunk of the money, so we did a walk­through of the build­ing and fell in love with it. [It had] ev­ery­thing you need not only to cre­ate a com­mu­nity but keep it strong. We have a Bul­gar­ian dance troupe that comes and uses our space for prac­tice and shows. We want to have those cul­tural nights, where you have a Pol­ish dance group or a Ger­man dance group. I think it’s some­thing that will make the cen­ter stand out.

WHY OPEN THE CEN­TER TO EV­ERY­ONE? We were con­tacted by a lot of pre­vi­ous YMCA mem­bers, and we re­al­ized the value this cen­ter had to the whole com­mu­nity. The other rea­son is it’s just not fea­si­ble to run some­thing like this off do­na­tions.

ARE BALKAN-AMER­I­CANS ABLE TO MAIN­TAIN A STRONG CUL­TURAL IDEN­TITY IN THE U.S.? It’s usu­ally one of two ex­tremes. They ei­ther be­come too en­gulfed in the main­stream cul­ture here and for­get their roots and can no longer com­mu­ni­cate with fam­ily. Or, you have the other ex­treme: “I’m Al­ba­nian and I live in this coun­try, but I have noth­ing to do with this coun­try.”

WHY DO YOU THINK YOU CAN SUC­CEED WHERE THE YMCA FAILED? My ide­al­is­tic an­swer would be be­cause we’re more fo­cused on fam­ily values, and we don’t have the cor­po­rate men­tal­ity that the Y has. But to be hon­est, this place, be­fore they closed it down, was a very suc­cess­ful cen­ter. They left a lot of fi­nan­cial pa­pers be­hind – it wasn’t this place that was fail­ing. It was the ones in the city. This one they got rid of to pay off debt.

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