Connection and community are priorities for Yale’s Students of Salaam

Activists carrying a Refugees Welcome banner during a protest march in New Haven, CT.
Marchers at the 2017 Refugee Run, organized by Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS), walking from East Rock to Downtown New Haven. The march concluded in speeches from city officials, refugees, and others to show support for the resettled members of the community.

For me, personally, Students of Salaam home tutoring has been the best way to deal with homesickness ever,” said Malak Nasr ’19 of Davenport College (DC). “The family speaks Arabic and cooks Middle Eastern food — it is exactly like being in Cairo, except it isn’t Cairo, and they’re a Syrian family, and they’re not speaking my dialect, but it’s okay because it’s close enough. For me, it’s what finally made me feel comfortable in New Haven.”

Nasr and her classmate Fatima Chughtai ’19 DC are co-presidents of Students of Salaam (SOS), a Yale organization that provides tutoring and community engagement to the refugee and other migrant populations of New Haven. The group’s mission is to help refugee and migrant populations, who are often pushed to the fringe because of language barriers or unfamiliarity with American culture, find a sense of belonging in this city.

As has been reported in the news, the world is currently experiencing the largest human migration in history, with over 20% of those migrants being Syrian. Thousands of migrants have settled New Haven, and — given the recent crisis in Puerto Rico — it is likely there will be many more. 

A conversation on Cross Campus started it all

This media-dubbed “refugee crisis” was very much on the minds of Stella Shannon ’18 of Berkeley College and Aaminah Bhat ’18 of Branford College, the co-founders of Students of Salaam, during their first year at Yale in 2014. Shannon decided to do something about it after working as a translator with the Yale Asylum Clinic and seeing the growing volume of migrants from the Middle East and Central Asia, who often could not find resources in their native language in the New Haven Public Schools.

A portrait of Yale students Stella Shannon and Aaminah Bhat.
Stella Shannon (left) and Aaminah Bhat (right), photo by Lucy Sternbach and Alice Oh.

Shannon recalls the day she connected with Bhat about her concerns. “I ran up to her on Cross Campus and said ‘Aaminah, we have to do something. We have to start a program that can connect these amazing resources we have at Yale with all these people who speak these critical languages.’”

Bhat remembers thinking it “sounded fabulous.” With a laugh, Shannon quips, “We had no idea that it would consume the next three years of our lives.”

Given their own very different cultural backgrounds but very similar academic trajectories, Bhat and Shannon see themselves as an “unlikely duo committed to fighting for tolerance, security, and vibrant multi-culturalism that upholds the rights of all global citizens in an age of dramatic demographic change.”

Bhat is from Lawrenceville, NJ. Her parents emigrated to the U.S. from Kashmir. She cites her time as an EMT for her town’s local ambulance squad and her own religious background as incentives for becoming involved in community service. Shannon was born and raised in Missoula, MT. She was inspired to pursue public service thanks to her time as a fourth grader in public school in rural Mexico, her work at her local Montana Farmer’s Market, and her experience as a translator for the U.S. Department of Justice and the Yale Law School Asylum Clinic. Both women are global affairs majors concentrating in international security, and are currently in the Grand Strategy program. Between them, they speak English, French, Spanish, Arabic, Urdu, Kashmiri, and Hindi.

Shannon and Bhat believe SOS could have an important impact on the larger political situation. “Current immigration policy focuses more on quotas and less on capacitating communities to fully integrate people and provide every individual in a community with a true sense of dignity and purpose,” said Shannon. She explained that because of their studies, “We recognize the security implications for failed integration.”

In fact, the two, who stepped down as co-presidents of the group in the spring, now see Yale’s Students of Salaam as an “incubator” for their long-term mission “to help combat the rise of identitarian enclaves that compromise social, economic, and cultural cohesion.” Both are due to graduate in the spring and are already working to scale up the successful parts of the model they’ve been incubating in New Haven to more mutable, broadly applicable models that could be transplanted elsewhere in the U.S. They call this new venture Societies of Salaam, since they do not want to limit it to college campuses, but to expand it to the local, state, and federal level.

A group of students in a Yale common room.

Bhat and Shannon are currently working with Connecticut Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS), Dean Takahashi of the Yale Investments Office, and Golden Gate Connecticut on a project involving the employment for low-skilled workers, including refugees. Additionally, they are working with Institute for Social and Policy Studies (ISPS) as well as the Yale Department of Economics to conduct a survey of recent census data to observe educational isolation for Central Asian and Middle Eastern refugees across the United States. Bhat and Shannon credit the success of the original program and its up-scaled version to the inaugural Students of Salaam Board members and also their mentors: Elizabeth Bradley, former director of the Brady-Johnson Grand Strategies Program; Sarab Al-Ani, senior lector in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations; Emma Sky, senior fellow at Jackson Institute and director of the Maurice R. Greenberg World Fellows Program; and Clare Lockhart, senior fellow at Jackson Institute and founder-director of the Institute for State Effectiveness.

Think globally, act locally

Today, under the leadership of Nasr and Chughtai, Students of Salaam serves an estimated 200 students across three public schools (Wexler-Grant, Fairhaven, and Hillhouse) and 15 households. SOS’s tutoring staff is 60 strong. In fact, the organization is now so popular that Nasr and Chughtai said they may have to impose an application for prospective tutors next fall.

Today any Yale student – undergraduate or graduate – can join regardless if they know languages outside of English. Being fluent in a Middle Eastern or Central Asian language is a plus but not required. Spanish is also useful, and Nasr and Chughtai expect it will be increasingly in demand as SOS works with the schools to give extra support to incoming Puerto Rican migrants.

Student tutors can elect either to be a part of the in-school program, which Chughtai manages and has a set curriculum that SOS developed, or part of the in-home program, which is under Nasr’s direction and offers what she calls “the personal connection.” In-home tutors are paired with families in groups of two or three, and are soon welcomed into the rituals of family life. The families will often prepare tea or cook meals for the tutors to enjoy with them before the tutoring commences. The tutoring is more free-form in the home, taking the shape the family and the students in the family need. The Yale tutors develop activities and art projects, help with homework, and even answer questions for parents and refer them to the necessary resources.

In the past, SOS was fairly independent from the other resources that exist in Connecticut for refugees, like Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS) and Junta for Progressive Action, but this year, Chughtai and Nasr have built bridges with some of the other nonprofits and student organizations who are committed to similar goals. In terms of forging connections within the Yale community, Students of Salaam is also undergoing the new membership process with Dwight Hall, the center for public service and social justice at Yale. Over the past two semesters, Dwight Hall’s new membership coordinator has ranked them as highly efficient as an organization and they’ve earned the “would recommend” mark.

Students of Salaam at Yale has also hosted several community events to celebrate the cultures of the refugees and educate the broader New Haven public about them. 

Young people posing for a portrait.
A community event sponsored by Students of Salaam.

This fall, SOS hosted a picnic at East Rock Park for refugee families and community members, and this winter, SOS hopes to do a New Haven restaurant fundraiser week, where a certain percentage of sales from participating restaurant will go to funding SOS’s up-front expenses, such as school supplies. Finally, in about a week, SOS is partnering with two other student organizations, the Yale Refugee Project and the Arab Student Association, to put on an Arab Cultural Night with different stalls for activities and food — such as calligraphy, henna, Arabic coffee and tea tasting. Three stalls will feature refugees from the community. The event is also being supported by the Yale Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.

For Nasr and Chughtai, the impetus to forge connection between refugee and newly migrated populations and the rest of New Haven is personal. As noted earlier, Nasr empathizes with the need to overcome homesickness as an Arabic-speaking international student here in the U.S. For Chughtai, a Pakistani-American from Baltimore, it is the awareness that “often America is boasted as a multicultural hub that accepts all, but from the immigrant perspective, assimilating can be really difficult, especially as we live in a reality where certain races and languages might be prejudiced against.”

With the way politics gives a face to Middle Eastern and South Asian folks in America, the culture can choose to cast them as not deserving or needing help,” said Chughtai. “Our goal here in this community is to recognize the needs of those overlooked populations and give them the means to have a voice to speak for themselves. English literacy may seem like a small goal to some, but for these communities, it is a major barrier to being able stand up for their own rights.”

We’re just trying to do our little part as much as we can,” said Nasr. “We are trying to reach as many students as possible. You’d be surprised how much of an impact it has on people’s lives here.”

If you are interested in tutoring for SOS, especially if you are fluent in one of the languages of New Haven refugee populations, visit the Students of Salaam website to learn more.

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Kendall Teare:, 203-836-4226