Yale students offer a welcome and more to newly arrived refugees

Two years ago, when she was just beginning to make a new home for herself in the unfamiliar city of New Haven, Katarzyna Rojek ’14 found that one of her weekly highlights was the time she spent with others who were also navigating life in a new community: the members of a recently arrived Afghani family which had spent two decades in a refugee camp in India before resettling in the United States.

As a volunteer for the Yale Refugee Project (YRP), Rojek visited the family weekly with two other Yale students, each giving time to assist the seven children with their homework and to offer advice on other practical concerns such as getting a driver’s license, making college plans, and preparing for standardized testing in school. She also helped various members of the family learn and practice their English.

“What I enjoyed most was the connection we [Yale volunteers] made with our family,” says Rojek of the experience. “Especially as a freshman, just as new to the city as my refugee family, seeing them every week tempered the edge of unfamiliarity of the college environment. I became very interested in their wellbeing. Hearing that the father had gotten a job at a factory nearby or that one of the children was doing well in school was the best news of my week. Conversely, being told that a child was in danger of failing or that a mother’s job opportunity fell through was frustrating and worrying.”

Rojek, herself the daughter of Polish immigrants, is one of about 70 Yale students who volunteer with YRP, which was founded four years ago to help recently arrived refugees in the New Haven area make the transition to their new lives in America. The service group works with the New Haven-based Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS) to welcome the new community members — offering guidance with activities and tasks ranging from learning about their new environs to assisting them in their search for jobs, in addition to providing tutoring in English and homework help. The Yale volunteers are generally paired with one refugee or family, meeting them in their homes or at other venues.

“Many of the refugees don’t know English at all,” says Cathy Huang, who is co-president of YRP this year with Rojek. “They’ve often spent many years in refugee camps before finally being resettled here. Many experienced severe emotional — and sometimes physical trauma — in their home countries. It can be very daunting for them to arrive here. We’re here to help them with that adjustment.”

Huang notes that every refugee family who arrives in New Haven receives assistance — including help locating housing — from IRIS, whose stated mission is to help the new Americans “establish new lives, regain hope, and contribute to the vitality of Connecticut’s communities.” IRIS helps resettle more than 100 families per year in the New Haven community, including many from the war-torn countries of Iraq, Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and, more recently, Somali and Syria.

The Yale volunteers “contribute in a significant way to every aspect of IRIS’ mission,” says Laurel McCormack, the organization’s volunteer coordinator. “If the refugees they have been paired with have recently arrived, the Yale students sometimes provide informal cultural orientation to New Haven — perhaps by going to a local park together or even simply by answering questions about Yale and New Haven.

“More importantly, they work on English conversational, reading, and writing skills with the refugees, as low English fluency levels are one of the largest barriers to our clients’ ability to find employment or even connect with other community members in New Haven outside of their nationality group,” she continues. “Many clients do not have the opportunity to speak or befriend a native English speaker or an ‘American’ outside of IRIS.” She notes that for those refugees who have difficulty traveling to IRIS for English instruction, the in-home tutoring by Yale volunteers is especially helpful.

“It is great encouragement for refugees to know that there is a wider community, beyond IRIS staff, who cares about them and wants to get to know them,” McCormack continues. “In the same vein, I think YRP members help serve as advocates and carry refugees’ stories and day-to-day struggles on with them. They try to help connect our clients with other opportunities in the community and continue to support and volunteer with our clients even after they have graduated.”

YRP also holds several events on the Yale campus for refugee families, including barbecues on the Old Campus, where the various volunteers and refugees can enjoy a meal and share their experiences.

Amelia Earnest, a Yale junior, says that she had never met a refugee before she became involved with YRP, which paired her with a family from Iraq that came to the United States via Egypt.

“I’m majoring in global affairs, and in my Yale classes we’ve talked about vulnerable populations and such issues as health barriers for those populations,” says Earnest. “My Yale partner works with the two boys in the family, and I have been working with their mother, teaching her English. Language and cultural differences have been a challenge for her. She feels very uncomfortable when she leaves the house, and yet she desperately wants human connections — the ability to work and to have friends.

“My volunteer work with YRP is an opportunity to leave campus and go to a place where life is very different,” she adds. “For me, it’s been an incredible experience to be able to engage with the family members and learn about them. It has taught me to appreciate the things that are fixtures in our lives that we often take for granted, such as being able to walk into a grocery store and encounter the familiar, which is not the case for the Iraqi mother.”

Huang notes that, for most refugees, it’s a very long process to finally resettle in America, and, once here they face additional challenges beyond language and cultural barriers.

“Many of the refugees had professional careers in their home countries, but struggle to find low-skill jobs when they arrive here,” she says. In addition to lending a hand with that process, YRP has hosted workshops that allow refugees to share artistic, musical, or other talents — including one last year in which a refugee taught calligraphy to other refugees and student volunteers.

For many of the Yale volunteers, their participation in YRP has furthered their interest in learning more about the political situations and conflicts in the refugees’ home countries, or about international affairs more broadly.

“I’ve read some articles about Eritrea, and would like to give more thought to the subject of refugees in America,” says freshman Brett Davidson, who made weekly bike rides during his first semester at Yale to tutor an Eritrean refugee in English at his home. “It’s a complicated emotional thing to be driven out of your home because you are not safe there.”

Earnest documented some of the simple daily activities of the Iraqi mother she has befriended as a YRP volunteer for a semester-long project in her Yale class “Photojournalism in New Haven.”

“She’s often alone all day while her kids are in school and is trapped in a difficult cycle of isolation and depression,” says Earnest. “For my project, I captured some of her daily rituals, which gave me a more personal understanding of her experience here.”

Huang, who is majoring in economics and is an editor for The Yale Globalist, earned a Yale fellowship last year to spend fall semester in California recording the oral histories of formerly detained immigrants, and says she has become particularly passionate about capturing the stories of new Americans.

“America’s story needs to include all voices, including refugee voices,” comments Huang, who is also now exploring how YRP can collaborate with similar service organizations for refugees on other college campuses.

Currently paired with a young refugee from Iraq, Davidson says he encourages his Yale friends to share in the experience of being a YRP volunteer.

“For one thing, there is a need in the community,” says the Yale student. “But what is really gratifying is the distinct human dimension of participating in YRP. It’s an opportunity to form a relationship with an individual who you really want to succeed and who wants to succeed — and who is really appreciative of the help. To have that, and to see that what you do has a very tangible effect, makes the commitment really worthwhile.”

Visit here to learn more about YRP and its activities.