Over this past year, I volunteered at the Refugee Youth Project, an after-school program for local refugees, run by Baltimore City Community College in conjunction with refugee resettlement agencies, which aims to improve literacy skills, engage its students, and aid refugees in integration into society. It was an enriching and substantive experience, which proved the vitality of similar programs to the refugee population in the United States.
Working with kids was not a new experience for me. Even meeting with refugees was not a new experience, considering the countless refugees I had previously met throughout my travels. But working with refugee youth was a completely new experience, something I had never done before nor ever considered. What I did know was that I wanted to work in anything international affairs-related, so RYP seemed like an obvious fit. RYP was a place I had heard of prior to this year and so, with countless narratives of refugees I had met through my travels swimming in my head, I thought this would be familiar to me. I was eager to begin my service learning.
I spent a year every Thursday working with a group of students and throughout my time, I saw them grow. Their skills in English strengthened and they bonded with the volunteers. RYP followed a very simple schedule. The kids would arrive and usually play outside for a while, whilst the volunteers set up inside. When the kids came inside, volunteers would then pair up with the kids and work on their journals, which are used to strengthen their writing skills, or we played an ice-breaker. Afterwards, we worked on either their school work or we played board games with the kids. As a volunteer, it was my job to help the kids with their academics or provide guidance, all in order to aid them with transitioning into a new culture and society. In all honestly, it was like working with any group of kids and the only difference was that this group had kids from all grade levels. These kids would joke with us and tell us bits and pieces of their lives, both here and back home. We would learn new things together or try to convince each other that the board games would be better than writing reports or vice versa. Over time, the kids became friends and peers rather than refugees. They had likes and dislikes, fears and desires, emotions and stories they would share and give us a glimpse into their lives.
For the most part, working with the kids was relatively easy. They were carefree and were incredibly fun to work with. However, there were a few times where the volunteers faced a few problems. In regards to the actual program, RYP has suffered a cut in funding, which cut down the number of days RYP is held. As a result, we had less time to work with the kids. With additional days, we could work longer with students and work more effectively on their weaker skills. Also issue we faced was student attendance. At the beginning of the year, there was quite a large group of students that came every week. But towards the winter, the number of students dropped and even during the second semester, not as many kids showed up. There was not much we could do, since many did not want to come during times of really bad weather or really nice weather. Sometimes, it was not that big of a deal because we could give more attention to the kids that did come. But once we started incorporating hands on activities and field trips, the number of kids increased again. Kids that I saw once at the beginning of the year showed up towards the end and kids that came often in the first semester never showed up again. One of the best things we as volunteers can do is provide recommendations for the program in order to make it more effective. We realised that the students loved field trips and hands-on activities so we planned to include more of these next semester. This way, more kids will eventually come to the site and recommend it to other kids. The program is not too structured, which allows for alterations. Thankfully, the small problems we faced did not get in the way of working with the kids and helping them.
There are around 700,000 refugees living in the United States. Every day, they struggle to make this country their home and become familiar with their new surroundings. For some, resettling is easy; learn the language, and instantly countless opportunities open up. For others, it is not so simple. They struggle with the language and even the most basic task becomes incredibly difficult and hard to complete. Life here is not the same as life in their native homelands. But this is a reality that the host country must also realise. A host countries contributions and support can mean a lot for refugees and ease the transition, whilst providing a much needed support system. Thus, host countries often fund programs and organisations with the sole purpose of aiding refugees. It is a vital process.
RYP is a specific example of how a program can provide help for those who are refugees. They cater specifically to the youth population, which they hope will, in turn, indirectly aid the older population. Over time, I have seen kids who often don’t speak, excitedly come up to me to share the things they learned in school that day or tell me the new gossip that occurred within the group. In one instance, a new student from Burma joined in the winter. He hardly spoke any English and because of this, he was extremely shy and often stayed close with his friend, who spoke to him only in Burmese. I worked with this student for the semester and I saw him progress from a shy, aloof kid to someone who would come up to me and hold conversations. His English skills still need work but there was definitely a vast improvement that could be seen. For these programs, its vital that little steps are taken. These students, and refugees in general, will not immediately become fluent in English and automatically integrate into society without issue. This will take time and the best thing we, as a host community, can do is make transitioning as easy and simple as possible. Sometimes that means sitting with kids on Thursday afternoons and working on their school work with them. Sometimes it means playing football (or soccer, as they would yell at me) for over two hours. Sometimes it means listening to their gossip and stories that they gleefully whisper to us. Regardless, both the refugees and the host nation benefits from these programs. For us, the host nation, we learn about the conflicts that rage outside our borders. We get more accurate, and intimate details about the problems in the world. We also learn what we can do to help. We can learn about the refugees themselves and the reality they face.