Forum: Fostering sense of home for refugees

I sat across from a woman who had experienced struggles I couldn’t even imagine. Samira, a former Iraqi reporter for Reuters, left her career, family and friends to secure the possibility of a comfortable and successful life in America for her and her 15­-year-­old son. Today, she is an overworked, full­-time translator and single mother by day and a pizza delivery worker by night. I came to this family purely with the expectation of mentoring an impressionable high school student and instead found myself on the other end of the spectrum — a learner and observer of a complex resettlement system.

International attention has renewed the age-old discussion regarding how to resettle and integrate displaced people in supposedly homogenous societies. The global community has shifted focus to filling resettlement quotas and maintaining a generous reputation amongst the public. In response to increased pressure to host more refugees, specifically from Syria, Secretary of State John Kerry recently announced that the U.S. will increase its refugee intake from 70,000 global refugees to 100,000 by 2017. Pictures of sinking boats in the Mediterranean, endless rows of tents at European borders and separated families beg the question: What does this mean for us as students in Austin?

It turns out, making an impact on this community isn’t as impossible as you might think.

Although most Americans see this as a purely foreign issue, resettlement challenges have been — and still are — a prevalent concern in local communities, including Austin. For years, Austin non­profits have struggled to fill the gap between basic resettlement services, such as documentation, living and employment, and fostering a sense of belonging in a new community. Student volunteers strengthen this effort by providing the manpower and passion that drive their work.

We saw the interest that students had for foreign issues and directed the potential toward a more meaningful end.

The Liberal Arts Refugee Alliance (LARA) was founded in spring 2014 to promote volunteerism in an underserved population in the Austin community: refugees, asylees and parolees. LARA localized abstract global issues, such as the current refugee crisis, and connected UT students with refugee­-related non­profits in the Austin area. Since its inception, LARA volunteers have mentored local high school students, taught English as a Second Language (ESL) and worked toward integrating new arrivals to Austin.

Our primary goal since the beginning has been building relationships. There will always be people such as Samira, who are struggling to make their city feel like home. We have an obligation to do everything we can to create a welcoming environment for these refugees. You are here in this city, so take advantage of the opportunities around you to make a difference.

Cade is a government junior and LARA’s development executive. Farsad is a Middle Eastern studies senior and LARA’s social events executive. Karnes is a Plan II junior and LARA’s president.