UT volunteers tutor refugee children in light of Texas refugee defunding

Jenan Taha

Arabic-speaking students at UT are tutoring Austin’s newly settled refugee families who can no longer receive benefits from the state as of Sept. 30.

UT English Language Learners, a volunteer group started by economics junior Joy Youwakim, sends teams of students weekly into the homes of refugee children who go to school in Austin ISD.

The group works to fill the gaps in these students’ educations, which have been interrupted by political turmoil and constant relocation, Youwakim said.

“Our biggest goal is to provide stability for these people whose lives have been so shaken,” Youwakim said. “We really appreciate the value of an education, so it’s even more important for us to do that for kids [who] are younger than us that are facing a significant setback.”

Youwakim created the group after AISD refugee coordinators asked her to recruit proficient Arabic speakers around campus for weekend tutoring sessions.

“It’s been really rewarding,” Youwakim said. “It’s hard adjusting to life here. We just do as much as we can to ease them in.”

Thirty-three volunteers, split into 12 teams, tutor kids in grades from prekindergarten to senior year of high school, helping them with reading, improving their English and transitioning into their new environment. The volunteers also help parents with translating documents and communicating with teachers.

“We’re there to be a bridge between the families and the school system,” said neuroscience senior Jasmine Chaij, who works with a Syrian family with five children.

Chaij said working with the kids is an indescribable feeling.

“I feel like it’s my family,” Chaij said. “The kids are so smart, so willing to learn and so thankful for every opportunity they get.”

Each team tutors the children for two hours every Saturday. UT ELL held their first sessions of the semester this past weekend, one day after Texas withdrew from the nation’s refugee resettlement program.

Although groups such as UT ELL may not be affected by this ruling, Kenneth Misurella, assistant coordinator of Helping Hand For Relief and Development in northwest Texas, said it will have a negative impact on nonprofit groups as well as families who have yet to find a new home in the U.S.

“It’s something that’s very unfortunate, but at the same time very typical of our Texas congress,” Misurella said. “It’s definitely going to make it a lot harder for current refugee resettlement programs to get funded.”

Misurella said these programs will now focus on private and non-monetary donations to continue helping refugees.

Youwakim said she disagrees with the withdrawal, although she understands where some peoples’ fear of refugees is coming from.

“I think it’s bred from this culture of fearmongering and stereotypes,” Youwakim said. “These are people that aren’t in control of the harm that is happening to them, and we could do something to help, but some people have chosen not to.”

Creating the UT ELL program has allowed Youwakim to become more involved in the refugee issue, but Youwakim said there is a lot of work to be done.

“I feel constructive, but there’s still a bigger issue at hand,” Youwakim said. “I think the first way to start that is by raising awareness and clearing any misconceptions people have.”