When Maryam Hallaj moved to Syria at 12 years old, she was thrown into a whirlwind of change and met by dizzying waves of culture shock. Learning Arabic, making friends and understanding new customs was challenging for her.
“It’s exhausting, trying to acclimate into a culture that you’re unfamiliar with,” Hallaj said.
After five and a half years, Hallaj and her family moved back to the Philadelphia area as the severity of the civil war in Syria worsened. Now a senior studying architecture at Temple, she understands the difficulty that comes with adjusting to a different culture.
Temple students are working to make that transition easier — this time, for refugees living in Philadelphia.
According to the Pennsylvania Refugee Resettlement Program, more than 3,600 refugees arrived in Pennsylvania between October 2015 and September 2016, seeking a place to live that was free of imminent danger.
As 2016 drew to a close, Temple Refugee Outreach was approved as a new student organization on Main Campus. The organization hopes to connect students with immigrants and refugees. The organization’s founders hope to begin meeting in March.
“Building those relationships is a really rewarding thing,” said MacKenzie Bonner, a junior global studies and Spanish major and the president of the new organization.
The idea for the organization formed at a refugee center in Rome, where Bonner worked as an intern teaching English to immigrants while she studied abroad.
Katie Pfeil, a junior marketing major and vice president of TRO, worked alongside Bonner, preparing refugees for the workforce. Pfeil noticed that many at the Joel Nafuma Refugee Center had left their countries as doctors and engineers, but were applying to be cleaners and chefs in their new countries.
Both students were struck by the daily struggles refugees faced.
When Seth Finck, an Honors Program adviser, visited the center, he was moved as well.
“I think that seeing [refugees] kind of having to relearn to ride the bike in a certain way was kind of effective,” said Finck, now the faculty adviser of TRO, commenting on the refugees’ ability to enter a workforce in a new country.
That story was true for Rakin, an Afghan refugee who also worked at the refugee center in Rome. As a published writer who condemned the Taliban in his works, he was forced to flee, leaving his family and homeland behind. Because Rakin is fleeing the Taliban, his last name has not been included in this story.
Once he reached Italy, Rakin’s difficulties were far from over.
“He talked about really horrible things happening in his home country, but kind of talked with more sadness about living as a refugee and feeling not welcomed, just sensing that people were afraid or mistrustful of him,” Bonner said.
The summer after returning from Rome, Bonner and Pfeil decided to bring their work home with them.
They discovered a program at Loyola University that paired students with refugee families based on the student’s interests and comfort level. The program became a point of reference for Bonner and Pfeil’s own plans.
“They would help them with whatever they needed, whether it was as simple as, ‘How do you work the subway system?’ Grocery shopping, or, if they have kids, helping them with homework,” Pfeil said.
It didn’t take long for others to join. Erin Heald, a junior global studies and Spanish major, spent time tutoring elementary school students through Puentes Hacia el Futuro, a nonprofit that provides education for immigrants in South Philadelphia.
“Immersion is the best way for people to learn more about the issues that we’re facing,” said Heald, now the director of fundraising for TRO.
Puentes Hacia el Futuro is just one out of several refugee-related organizations TRO hopes to collaborate with. The organization’s founders have contacted the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and they plan to receive training from the Nationalities Service Center.
“I think that one of the neat things about this opportunity for students is it’s not just happening everywhere else,” Finck said. “It’s happening here. There’s a huge refugee population in Philadelphia itself.”
TRO hopes that by the time meetings begin, interested students will have an array of tasks at their disposal, like English tutoring and setting up apartments for new refugees.
“I think this kind of stuff is really good,” Hallaj said.
While Hallaj and her family struggled upon returning to America, she does not identify as a refugee. But her life in Syria — and her return to the States — taught her that many immigrants struggle with vital parts of American life.
“It’s a different culture,” Hallaj said. “They have to learn how to do certain things.”
Cultural differences aside, Bonner, Pfeil and Heald each stressed the importance of focusing on similarities when helping refugees settle into a new place.
“Building friendships, I think, is the biggest thing,” Bonner said. “Because once you don’t think of refugees, you think of, ‘Oh, my friend Rakin,’ that changes how you think of the whole issue.”
Angela Gervasi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @AngGervasi.