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ROCHESTER - In a city this big, it can be tough to find the right resources for Muslim refugees.

Where's the nearest halal restaurant? What direction is east? Where can non-English speakers find legal help or mental health resources?

It drove a group of current and former Rochester students from Century and John Marshall high schools to create an online app to assist newcomers to the area. Their app, Merhaba, was one of this year's Congressional App Challenge finalists.

"We were working on something that we knew was novel, that could help people," said Ibraheem Razouki, now a senior at Lamar High School in Houston, Texas.

Razouki moved to Houston after attending middle school in Rochester, where his friends Logan Nguyen Hammel, Fahad Albadri and Scott Anderson still live. The group is a part of AIM to AID, a youth-led nonprofit that Razouki co-founded in 2022 to help immigrant families in Houston and Rochester.

AIM to AID has raised more than $50,000 so far and includes a clothing line called Crescentwear created by Albadri and Nguyen Hammel. The nonprofit is entirely run by high schoolers and has expanded into chapters across the United States, Canada and six other countries.

Merhaba grew out of the group's efforts to assist newcomers in the U.S. Most members of the group are either children of immigrants or immigrants themselves who knew how their own families struggled in the community.

Razouki said he was born in Iraq but can identify with the same sort of issues Rochester's predominantly Somali Muslim community faces. Finding good places to eat that accommodate Muslim practices, known as halal, spurred the group's initial talks.

"We wanted to create an interactive map where you could scroll through various areas," Nguyen Hammel said. "You could scroll through ratings and go through stores or restaurants."

The students spent much of 2023 working on the app, which Anderson described as sort of a tailored Google Maps. By the time they entered the app in the Congressional App Challenge last fall, it had grown into a one-stop-shop for resources that even includes a built-in Arabic-to-English translator.

"It was something that we hadn't really done before," Nguyen Hammel said. "It's something that not many high schoolers do. We just dove right into it to research what kind of platforms we could put it on, design a usable interface ... researching everything to put all the puzzle pieces together."

Republican U.S. Rep. Brad Finstad picked Merhaba to represent southern Minnesota's entry in the challenge, one of almost 400 chosen by members of Congress this year out of about 3,700 entries. The group flew to Washington, D.C., this week as part of a conference honoring the 2023 challenge winners.

Nguyen Hammel said the win was a "really big surprise," comparing it to winning a state championship. Anderson said he was just happy the group got the project done on time.

"Winning the competition was an extra bonus at that point," he said.

Merhaba soon will be available to download in Rochester and Houston, but the students want to keep growing the application even as they start college in the fall. They're hoping other young programmers across Minnesota and beyond will help expand Merhaba, while obtaining feedback from initial users to improve the app's experience. The students even dream of the app going international one day.

"There's no application that really aims to improve the global migrant crisis," Razouki said. "It may seem very ambitious, but I feel like why should we stop at Minnesota, Houston and the U.S. when this is a global issue?"