Students are helping refugees make the transition to life in America.
The Refugee Well-being Project, a class offered through the psychology and anthropology departments, gives students the opportunity to work with refugees who are resettling in New Mexico.
Program Director Jessica Goodkind said that although some of the stresses refugees endure come from past traumas, others stem from tasks refugees have to face in the United States.
“A lot of the stress is due to how difficult it is to start life in a new place,” Goodkind said. “You don’t know anyone. You don’t have access to the resources that you need.”
The two-semester-long program trains students how to act as advocates for the refugees they are partnered with, said course instructor Brian Isakson.
“We spend time talking about refugee situations in different countries,” Isakson said. “We talk about conflicts in general and what causes the conflicts.”
Michelle Foley, a student in the class, said students learn necessary history and skills that will help them bridge the gap for their refugee families.
Foley said it is rewarding to see her efforts pay off when her partner family starts achieving their goals without help.
“When I first started working with them they always wanted me to go places with them,” she said. “Now they are doing it on their own.”
Goodkind said since the program started in 2006, 83 students have worked with 135 refugees from places like Liberia, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Eritrea and Iraq.
Foley said before she started the class she knew very little about Iraq and its culture, but now she understands it better and has grown to love it.
“It has changed my perspective on so many things and has really impacted me as a person,” she said. “I am so grateful for all that this has taught me.”
Catholic Charities resettles refugee families in New Mexico and offers them a chance to participate in the UNM program. One refugee from Iraq, who preferred to remain anonymous, said the project has been very beneficial for her and her family.
“My husband has his partner helping him to learn him how to use the Internet and access different things,” she said.
She said families grow very close to their student partners who are required to spend between six to eight hours a week with their refugee family.
“Once a month they come to our home,” she said. “They sit with us as a family, and we will have dinner together.”
Goodkind said the program serves as a forum for partners to share their experiences and knowledge with each other.
“Our project is really based on the idea of mutual learning,” she said.
Isakson said it is a way to have students apply the things they learn in the classroom.
“It is exciting to see students having a real hands-on learning experience,” he said.
The class accepts 30 students per year and earns students eight credit hours, but Foley said the real reward is helping families develop self-sufficiency.
“I really like the idea of being able to help someone,” she said. “To reach out and help with international problems, but here.”