Newly graduated students unite to provide essential educational opportunities for asylum seekers
Refugee Outreach Collective works with colleges and faculty to provide education to people displaced from their homes.
BROWNSVILLE, Texas – When COVID-19 brought college courses online, students and teachers lamented they lacked education and experiences.
Prakash Adhikari, associate professor of political science at Central Michigan University, located north of Lancing, admits he was one of those people.
“I was the last person to go online, because for me teaching should be interactive, face-to-face,” Adhikari told KENS 5 in an interview with Zoom. “This is where you get the most out of the teaching experience.”
But as COVID-19 forced the issue for traditional Adhikari students, he opened his class to people who would not normally have access to his classroom – asylum seekers in Matamoros, Mexico, who lived across the border. of Brownsville, Texas, pending their hearing date in the United States.
“This course they’re taking with me is about international relations, and these are topics during the semester when we talk about war and peace,” Adhikari said. “When they learn these theoretical concepts or the mechanism that causes war and leads to displacement, they are grateful. I think they have a better understanding or a deeper understanding of the situation they find themselves in. “
Eight students in Adhikari’s class were asylum seekers living in Matamoros at the time. They came from different countries, enshrined in Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPP, a Trump-era program that required asylum seekers to wait for their US court date in Mexico.
They were able to enroll in the Adhikari course, thousands of miles away in Michigan, thanks to the vision of many who wanted to expand access to education for those displaced from their homes.
New experiences, new initiatives
Around 2016, Emily Worline was 18 and had just finished her first year at university, when she was invited to visit a refugee camp in Greece.
“It was one of those shocking things. You know, once you see a camp, you think to yourself, ‘I can’t believe we are allowing this to continue,’ ”she said. “Refugee camps should not exist. I’m like, ‘Oh, my God. As if something had to be done. And what small role can I do so that I don’t at least sit still? I couldn’t imagine sitting around and doing nothing after seeing this.
Worline said this is how a conglomerate of student organizations started.
“We were all just a group of students who wanted to do some advocacy work and organize various efforts to support people and connect with people who have already lived or are currently in forced displacement. Really just like trying to stay positive and think, like, what can we do as ordinary students? “
The desire to help grew in three student organizations at Kalamazoo College, Western Michigan University, and Michigan State University.
Worline, now 23, with the title of founder and chairman of the Refugee Outreach Collective, said the organization now has a presence in seven schools. He hopes to add an eighth next year.
“What can we do to connect and help?” Worline said. “It was never like, ‘We’re going to change people’s lives.’ It never was. It was always, “What can we do with the resources and networks that we are connected to as students?” “
Worline said the organization assumes that refugee camps should not exist. It offers online tutoring for recently resettled students, a female entrepreneurship program and the world-class initiative that started in Dzaleka refugee camp in Malawi, Africa, before expanding to Matamoros. this year.
In partnership with professors like Adhikari, Refugee Outreach Collective offered a course in sustainable agriculture in Dzaleka and an international relations course there, as well as in Matamoros.
“For many, this is their first time taking a college course,” Worline said. “It can also give them theory and other frameworks to understand the situations they go through on the ground.”
Worline said that by the time she saw what was going on in Matamoros, she visited a number of refugee camps around the world.
She went to the Texas-Mexico border to see for herself and met Felicia Rangel-Samponaro, one of the principals of the Sidewalk School for Asylum Seekers.
Contextualize first-hand experiences
“We’re actually a rapid response organization, which means we feed people, we shelter people, we donate clothes, blankets, tents, sleeping bags, personal care kits, mosquito nets, lights, kids, sunscreen, food. In fact, we do everything, ”Rangel-Samponaro said. “We also take care of the medical aspects for both children and parents. And after all that, we are at school.
The sidewalk school also hires asylum seekers to teach children. Rangel-Samponaro connected his employees to Worline and his online course at a school in Michigan.
Students who took the course just graduated, Matamoros camp was emptied in early 2021 after the Biden administration allowed asylum seekers with active MPP cases to travel to the States- United.
Lisbel, from Cuba, is one of the students in Adhikari’s class. She enrolled while living in Matamoros as part of the MPP and graduated, living in the United States.
“We wouldn’t have the opportunity in this great country to enroll in a university and receive this type of course,” she said in Spanish. “Honestly, you are learning despite a video call on Zoom.”
Rangel-Samponaro and other advocates say new camps have sprung up in places like Reynosa and others, where the United States deports migrants under Title 42, a rule of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that former President Donald Trump began to use and that the Biden administration has maintained. in law. It allows U.S. Customs and Border Protection to deport migrants to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Rangel-Samponaro and the sidewalk school continue to work in Reynosa and other towns in Mexico where displaced people live.
Worline plans to offer another class this summer, working with the Sidewalk School to find the next group of students. Worline said it had been approved for 30 students to join a course offered by a professor at another university on humanitarianism in theory and practice.
“We will talk, for example, about the humanitarian complex and its impact on their lives in a very real way on the ground,” she said. “By also giving them frameworks to understand what they are going through in a new and different way.”
Eventually, Worline said, she would like to offer an associate’s degree that graduates can use.
“We want to make it a very legitimate educational experience,” she said. “To do this, we are working to connect with as many faculty as possible who would be interested in this collaborative experience, as it not only benefits people on the go, but also students who attend classes next to the border. “
“They never really took the time to think about refugees,” Adhikari added, referring to the students. “They just thought it was numbers. They really, literally had no idea what they looked like. They discovered that they were just human beings living halfway around the world, many of them said, “It was a life changing experience. It will stay with us for the rest of our lives. “”
After teaching in Malawi and Matamoros, Adhikari said he wanted to continue to be a part of this program and offer displaced people a path to better opportunities.
“I firmly believe that education can help the individual to overcome the suffering, the obstacles, the obstacles that he faces in his life,” said Adhikari.