The world is currently facing the largest refugee crisis since World War II. Concerned Wesleyan students are volunteering with community organizations, coordinating various speaker panels, fundraising for international NGOs and agencies, and engaging in advocacy efforts.
This fall, Casey Smith ’17 and Cole Phillips ’16 founded the Wesleyan Refugee Project (WRP). Smith, a College of Social Studies major who is pursuing certificates in Middle Eastern studies and international relations, has worked with refugees since high school, advocated for refugees’ rights in Washington, D.C., and volunteered for refugee resettlement organizations. She is currently studying abroad in Jordan, where she helps refugees access legal services with the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) and teaches yoga at the Collateral Repair Project (CRP). Phillips is a government major pursuing certificates in Middle Eastern studies and international relations. While studying abroad in Jordan, he worked for CRP, an NGO that provides aid to Syrian and Iraqi refugees. Phillips then returned to Jordan in August via a Davenport grant to conduct research for his thesis, and grew close with a Syrian refugee with whom he worked as an interpreter. These experiences inspired Smith and Phillips to engage the Wesleyan community in refugee aid work.
“More broadly, we also wanted to start conversations and bring awareness about refugee issues to campus,” said Smith.
Currently, there are 34 Wesleyan students volunteering through WRP, and many more have expressed interest. Every week, student volunteers work with three different organizations: Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS), helping refugees apply for housing and energy subsidy programs; the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), working on refugees’ resettlement applications; and Paper Airplanes, tutoring Syrian refugees in English.
Sophie Zinser ’16 joined early in the project as the volunteer coordinator for the IRIS group, but her role has expanded to co-coordinating the group’s efforts. A College of Letters and French studies major, Zinser has been studying Arabic since her sophomore year at Wesleyan. After interacting with refugees as a student studying abroad in Paris and as an Olin Fellow in Morocco, Sophie was inspired to engage further with refugees via volunteer efforts on campus.
“Working with IRIS has exposed my fellow students and I to just how much time and energy incoming refugees and their case workers spend dealing with endless paperwork and bureaucracy just to ensure their eligibility for basic things, such as subsidized housing or electricity,” she said. “Realizing this has made my fellow students and I more passionate about being the friendly faces that guide them through the processes, so that they can spend more time worrying about the million other concerns on their minds, such as learning English, assimilating into American culture, and being happy.”