You develop an interest. You go abroad. You learn a language, and become steeped in another culture. You come back home. You connect with alumni. You exchange ideas. You give back to your community. Months after my experience in Jordan, I feel like my summer abroad has finally come a full circle.
For the past two years, I have been involved as a volunteer with refugees in my community. After my freshman year, I volunteered with GirlForward, where I made friends with refugee girls my age from Syria, Iraq, Burma, Afghanistan and other nations. Since last year, I have been serving as an ESL tutor for refugee students in an apartment complex with a large refugee population with the Interfaith Action of Central Texas (iACT).
My interactions with refugee children from the Middle East exposed me to the Arabic language and culture, and prompted me to learn more. Working with underprivileged immigrant children was one of the reasons why I applied to study Arabic with NSLI-Y; I wanted to become better equipped to overcome the language barrier and play a little part in helping refugee kids acquire the number one skill needed for success in America: the English language.
When I came back from Jordan, I started working with a few high schoolers in Austin to begin establishing iACT’s Youth Council for Refugees, with the mission of uniting youth in the Greater Austin area to collaborate and support refugees in the region through advocacy, awareness, fundraising, and volunteer efforts. However, for this to happen, it was necessary for participating schools to have groups of committed students who would work to realize the council’s goals.
I recalled an article I had read on NSLI-Y Interactive, the NSLI-Y program’s platform for publishing alumni stories, about a club called Students Together Assisting Refugees (STAR). The article talked about how NSLI-Y Arabic Summer 2016 (Jordan) alum Deni Hoxha started a chapter of STAR in his school to support refugees. Intrigued, I did some more research. The organization was initially founded by NSLI-Y Arabic 2015 (Morocco) alum Adam Sella, who, noting the lack of volunteer opportunities for teenagers wishing to help refugees, started a club that would bring youth in his community together to make a difference.
When I read about the club, I realized that there was no better way to involve my school with the iACT Youth Council: I could continue a NSLI-Y Alumni tradition! I contacted Adam Sella and he gave the resources to start the club. Working with a friend, I established the Meridian World School chapter of STAR, in coalition with iACT.
Although our STAR club is relatively new, the enthusiasm and excitement to make a difference is palpable amongst the club members. In the past weeks, we organized a Holiday Book Drive to collect used books for refugee children. Last year, I tutored Malika*, an inspired, intelligent little girl who loved to read. It was her favorite activity, and the library was her favorite place. Her passion for books, as well the lack of access to them was the main inspiration for holding the drive.
It was so exciting to see how the book drive worked out! Originally, we had decided to hold the drive within school; however, with finals just around the corner, it was logistically not possible. I thus decided to reach out to the Austin community and my neighborhood via social media. Within just minutes, people across the city were volunteering to serve as book collection points in different regions of Greater Austin. A few simple messages on Facebook eventually lead to the collection of nearly 600 high-quality children’s books for the Interfaith Action of Central Texas!
The books were allocated for different iACT programs. We set aside several boxes for the Summer iLEARN ESL camp, some for the mentorship programs, and a box for the kids who come to weekly tutoring. Since yesterday was our last tutoring sessions in 2017, we had a fun little party for the kids, where they were able to pick out books to take home.
The book drive was a success, and it was exciting to see so many people come together to support the cause. For one of our more long-term projects, we are working on a discussion event, in which students from various backgrounds will attend an organized discussion and answer questions addressing the topic “How Diversity Shapes America”. The idea is to start a dialogue within our school community about race, religion, and immigration, and take the first step towards eradicating some of the hatred that inhibits the positive integration of refugees in our society.
I am so excited to see how our STAR club grows, and I am thankful for the NSLI-Y Alumni who paved this path before me! I feel that with this, my NSLI-Y experience is coming a full circle. I became interested in Arabic. I lived in Jordan. I learnt a lot of Arabic and experienced a new way of life. I came home. I connected with alumni. And now, I am happy to be able to continue a tradition and bring the legacy of a NSLI-Y experience close to my own community.
*Names changed for privacy