Organization connects students with Austin’s refugee population

Marisa Charpentier

Batman’s black cape flies through the air. A young Iranian boy holding an action figure laughs, rolling on the grass. He does not speak any English, but that doesn’t stop him from playing superheroes with Caleb Cade, a government and Middle Eastern studies freshman.

A few feet away, Sarah Fischer, an international relations and global studies sophomore, watches as a Cuban woman and an Iranian woman sit on the grass and have a conversation through Google Translate.

To the outside world, this would appear to be a typical Zilker Park outing. But these students recognize the impact they’re making. In the spring, the students became involved with Refugee Services of Texas. They help refugees practice English and listen to their stories.

“Even though there’s that language barrier, just being with these people means so much, especially with kids who have been uprooted from their entire lives and have come to a whole new country,” Cade said.

When the Liberal Arts Honors program held a social innovation challenge in March called Envision Austin, the students took their interests in international affairs even further. Along with other LAH students, they proposed a student organization called Liberal Arts Refugee Alliance. The goal of the alliance is to network volunteers from campus to refugee centers in Austin and educate students on refugee causes in the area and world. The team won Most Impactful Idea in the competition and received a $1,000 grant to jumpstart their plans.

“A lot of times, people get stuck in the UT bubble,” said Sam Karnes, Plan II and Middle Eastern studies sophomore. “It’s very easy to just do things on campus, but taking it outside and being with people that are being impacted with real issues add to your education exponentially.”

The team also worked with Refugee Services of Texas to create Explore ATX, a program that allows people in the area — not just UT students —  to connect refugees with the community.

“Some of them have families, but they don’t really have many opportunities to leave their apartment, so it gives them opportunities to get out into Austin, have a fun day and meet other refugees,” Karnes said.

While working with refugees, Fischer has come across clients who were prominent engineers, chemistry teachers, psychologists and surgeons from all different parts of the world. She said what she admires most about them is their dedication.

“These people are contributing a lot to Austin,” Fischer said. “They’re coming in so ready to get on the ground and start furthering their education and recertifying their credits, so they can start working here. We can see how positively these people are going to affect Travis County and Austin in general.”

So far, the group has gained nearly 200 likes on Facebook. With a new school year in full swing, the alliance will hold open meetings every other Thursday starting Sept. 11 and bring in speakers to inform students about the refugee cause. The group also plans occasional outings around town with refugees. According to Fischer, whether students are giving them campus tours, driving them around the city, sharing music or just talking about their favorite novels, they are making a difference in the lives of refugees. 

“They’ve sacrificed a lot to get over here,” Fischer said. “These people have faced some sort of persecution or danger. They get here and immediately hit the ground running and settle their jobs. What we’re trying to do is help them get more acclimated to Austin.”

According to Cade, the most rewarding aspect has been being able to pursue his passion — impacting others.

“A lot of people go into college with the mindset of ‘I’m going to get my education now and then do something impactful later,’” Cade said. “We felt, as students, we should instead look for opportunities to engage with our world as it is now and make a difference now.”