UT students mentor Austin refugee students

Tehreem Shahab

Under the Refugee Student Mentor program, UT students with foreign language skills are assisting refugee students in Austin public schools.

The program is a collaboration between Austin Independent School District and UT’s Department of Middle Eastern Studies. Mentors typically speak Arabic, Pashto and Farsi with their mentees, most of whom are from Iraq and Afghanistan, program coordinator Thomas Leddy-Cecere said.

Current volunteer Alexandra Vermooten said she was able to make connections with the students despite limited Arabic proficiency.

“There was this one boy and I was working with him on his reading comprehension,” government senior Vermooten said. “And I told him, ‘I’m still learning, just as you’re learning English, I’m learning Arabic, and I’m not very good at it.’ And he said, ‘So you can learn from me just as much as I can learn from you.’ It was a really nice, affirming moment.”

Jonathan Kaplan, an assistant professor in the department of Middle Eastern Studies, started the program in the spring of 2015 after learning about a number of refugee students at Doss Elementary School. The program started at Doss Elementary with 15 UT student mentors and has since expanded to 16 schools in the district and had 50 mentors last semester.

Leddy-Cecere said volunteers do not need proficiency in a foreign language to participate.

“We have volunteers from a whole range of speaking abilities, some having a semester of study to native speakers,” Leddy-Cecere said.

Depending on their language skills, volunteers can assist students by helping in language translations or reinforcing their concepts in different subjects.

Sociology senior Noor Alahmadi volunteered for the program and said it is important not to generalize the experiences of these students.

“These kids are a lot more complex than even I realized,” Alahmadi said. “I thought of them in a vacuum of just being refugees, as people who just need us. They’re more complex than that. They like to read. They’re struggling with stuff at home. You think, ‘Oh they came to America and everything is great.’ It’s not like that.”

The program is beneficial to volunteers because it provides an opportunity to practice a foreign language outside a classroom setting, Kaplan said.

“It exposes them to a diversity of experiences and a broader situation of the world and how it connects with their own life here in Austin,” Kaplan said.