UMich Student Programs Support Afghan Refugees in Ann Arbor

Two University of Michigan student organizations, End the Cycle and the Michigan Refugee Assistance Program (MRAP), are working together to create educational materials for Afghan refugees in Ann Arbor. The program combines the End the Cycle goals of improving education equity and the MRAP goal of supporting refugees by helping Afghan refugees adjust to life in Ann Arbor.

Volunteers from these organizations teach Afghan families English and American culture through WhatsApp, a Facebook-owned messaging app used globally but with more limited domestic following. Recently, schools in Oakland reached out to the program to ask for help with classes for refugee students in the district.

LSA Junior Rija Awan is the President of End the Cycle and the Volunteer Coordinator for MRAP. As a member of both clubs, she combined their network of volunteers to organize the program and help bridge the educational gap among school-aged refugees.

“There (are) a lot of refugees who have settled in Ann Arbor recently,” Awan said. “Many organizations provide material support…we try to fill the educational gap by giving them lessons and acting as mentors.”

The initiative began in January 2022 when a local student contacted MRAP asking for help with English lessons for Afghan refugees, according to Awan. MRAP partnered with End the Cycle to create the program and find volunteers. There are currently approximately 40 Afghan families and 25 University of Michigan volunteers involved in the program.

Around 6 million Afghans have been driven from their country due to conflict, disease, violence and poverty. Several countries, including the United States, have also played a role in the ongoing struggles facing Afghanistan. In the summer of 2021, US President Joe Biden withdrew all US troops from the country on August 30. During the military retreat, the Taliban took control of the Afghan government on August 15.

Jewish Family Services is a non-profit organization that helps resettle refugees in Ann Arbor. They recently welcomed about 300 Afghan refugees to Washtenaw County and expect more. The Afghan families stayed in hotels until the organization could find them accommodation.

LSA Senior Maryam Masood is the Co-Chair of MRAP. She has worked with several refugee families and organized projects with JFS to help them.

“I think Ann Arbor is specifically where a lot of the help is,” Masood said. “JFS is based in Ann Arbor, and there are other local organizations doing a lot of work. Refugees have very strong ties, especially between the University, its student organizations and major resettlement agencies. There’s just a great presence of help here.

Awan described his work as the leader of the program. She oversees study programs and matches volunteers with families.

“So far, I’ve found volunteers, created an outline of the program, and structured the vision for the program, because it’s not like someone gave it to us,” Awan said. “Then I met with volunteers and developed curricula and tried to figure out how best to teach the lessons. Now, since we start tutoring, (the program is going to) be more individualized as I pair families with tutors based on fit.

Awan said his group of volunteers, UM students from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds, are committed to smoothing their transition from Afghanistan to Ann Arbor.

“I think something impressive is the courage of the volunteers,” Awan said. “The volunteers I work with are committed to making this an amazing program that will really help people. Volunteers don’t receive awards or anything like that, but they do it out of the goodness of their hearts and put in the effort.

A sophomore in engineering, Caroline Collins is a tutor in the refugee program and a volunteer with MRAP. She gives a weekly one-hour lesson, with a curriculum of courses created by individual volunteers, on WhatsApp to an Afghan family to help them adapt to the particularities of American society.

“Some of the lessons are about public transportation,” Collins said. “We have one on restaurant culture and one on how to access medical care in America.”

Collins said it is gratifying to see the positive impact these lessons have on attendees.

“Meeting the family and seeing the work impact them is really exciting,” Collins said.

Daily reporter Carly Brechner can be reached at [email protected]

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