This semester, a group of students—Colfax Phillips ’16, Sophie Zinser ’16, and Casey Smith ’17—have founded the Wesleyan Refuge Project, a new club to address and bring attention to the current world refugee crisis. Phillips and Zinser are coordinating this project on campus, while Smith is working on this from Amman, Jordan, where she is studying abroad this semester. All students involved have academic interests in the Middle East, and Smith and Phillips also have experience with refugees in Jordan.
During the State of the School speech, University President, Michael Roth, stressed the importance for students to involve and educate themselves about the refugee crisis, especially since the United States and the state of Connecticut are involved. A few days after this, multiple campus initiatives sprung up and these initiatives involved volunteering, holding talks, and raising awareness.
“I was in Jordan for 4 months last year and that was my first real experience working with refugees,” Phillips said. “I made some really deep connections.”
After studying abroad in Jordan, Phillips returned last summer for thesis research.
“I was in Jordan again this summer and I was close friends with a Syrian refugee and his family,” Phillips said. “[These friendships] were really eye opening.”
The group’s mission is to bring students who interested in assisting Connecticut’s refugee community together for opportunities to volunteer for different organizations.
“The group [was created] to basically bring the refugee crisis to Wesleyan,” Zinser said. “I would say that is the main goal because it affects everyone everywhere. We wanted to integrate the conversation around the refugee crisis at various levels.”
Last week, Amanda Lane, the Executive Director of the Collateral Repair Project (CRP), spoke on campus about the refugee crisis in Jordan. CRP helps urban refugees in Amman with food, housing, trauma relief, and education. Smith and Phillips have both spent time working with this organization.
The Wesleyan Refugee Project’s coordinators hope that events such as these will encourage more dialogue and awareness about this issue. Along with booking guest speakers, the coordinators also recruit volunteers for different non-profits.
There are three partnership organizations that are working with the Wesleyan Refugee Project: The Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS), Paper Planes, and the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP).
IRIS assists refugees from Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Congo, Sudan, and other countries with resettlement in New Haven, it and helps with making their transition easier. Volunteers at IRIS also assist refugees in New Haven with applications for subsidized housing and energy.
Paper Planes is an online tutoring program that pairs up college students with Syrian refugees. The coordinators are also planning to give volunteers for Paper Planes minor Arabic training so they can communicate a little more easily with their tutees. The pairs communicate through Skype for about two hours a week.
IRAP helps refugees that once worked for the U.S. government who are looking to migrate to the U.S. Volunteers for this program receive paperwork for some refugees and find their prior supervisor’s contact information in the U.S. Once the supervisor is found, this person can help the refugees migrate to the U.S. Finding their supervisor’s contact information helps speed up their resettlement process.
Paper Planes and IRAP volunteers work remotely, whereas IRIS volunteers work on site. IRIS now has six volunteers that travel to New Haven twice a week and Paper Planes has around 15 participants. The Wesleyan Refugee Project’s listserv now has about 35 people and is one of the fastest growing new student groups on campus this year.
Julia Morrison ’17 attended the orientation for IRIS’ volunteering program.
“It was really eye opening experience,” Morrison said. “I decided that I wanted to help out with this after visiting my friend in Germany. Her dad is a lawyer that works with the crisis there and Germany has been the most accepting towards refugees. At Wesleyan, we have this privilege where we have time to [help out with these causes] and these conversations [urged me] to commit to this project.”