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

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 walk-through 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.

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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. ◆


‘Fun to Stay’ appears in the May 2017 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning May 1, or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.

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