UT Refugee Student Mentor Program fundraises to cover transportation costs

Tori Duff, News Reporter

A group of UT students who mentor refugee children within Austin ISD is fundraising to help cover their transportation costs as many volunteers are having to travel farther outside of Austin. 

“Rent is getting more and more expensive in Austin, and so refugee families who are placed often end up typically moving farther away from campus,” said Katie Aslan, overseer of the UT Refugee Student Mentor Program. “Sometimes, our mentors need to get to schools that are farther away from campus and not as accessible by the bus system.”

The fundraiser, which closes Dec. 10, has raised $8,215 of its $8,000 goal. Funds will pay for rideshares so mentors can reach refugee students within AISD. Currently, it can take students almost an hour to reach mentees if they take public transportation, according to the fundraiser’s website. Most mentors aim to spend one to three hours weekly working with student refugees, but travel time takes away from their work aiding students with tutoring, social interaction and language support. 

“When the pandemic hit, we weren’t actually sending any (mentors) physically to schools for three semesters,” said mentor program coordinator Bryan Sitzes. “This is our first semester since the spring of 2020 where we’re actually sending mentors back physically into schools. Although some mentors do need help, other mentors either do have their own vehicles or sometimes they can give rides to other mentors.”

Another factor the program is hoping to address is aiding the needs of Afghan refugee students given an influx of refugees from Afghanistan to Austin recently.

The program has 25 mentors working at 17 different AISD schools based on the needs of students in the schools. However, Sitzes said they do not have enough volunteers to work with every refugee student in AISD. The group works with the AISD Refugee Family Support Office to identify students most in need of assistance, which is often based on language barriers.

“Many of them are coming from violent or unstable situations, but even if they’re not coming from an extremely violent situation, it’s just really disruptive to leave their life and come to a new place,” Sitzes said. “We aim to try to give these kids some degree of comfort and special attention that they might not necessarily get otherwise.”

Myra Syed, an international relations, government, and Middle Eastern languages and cultures senior, is a student mentor in the program. She said that while financing transportation has become more difficult for the mentors, volunteers in the program are dedicated to making sure refugee students are not left behind.

“The logistical problem is there obviously, but I don’t think it ever became a hindrance from people doing the job,” Syed said. “I’m willing to put up with transportation challenges because we know that the work we’re doing is far more beneficial to students.”