The TransAtlantic Masters Program hosted a panel discussion on December 8th focused on service learning and local refugee communities. We invited representatives from the Carolina Center for Public Service, Transplanting Traditions Community Farm and World Church Service to attend. One of our first-year Excel students, Lizzie Russler, wrote a wonderful piece after attending this event. Please read her text below and watch our schedule for a follow-up event next semester focused on returning students who have recently worked with refugees in Europe.
Service Learning and Refugee Integration Panel by Lizzie Russler
Europe has had a long history of mass migration, and the current Syrian Refugee Crisis poses a great challenge to modern European politics. However, integrating refugees into society is not just a European problem. At the Service Learning at UNC-CH and Working with Local Refugee Communities, panelists Ellen Andrews, Kelly Owensby, Madison Hayes, and Ryan Nilsen defined service learning, specified the role of student volunteers and their effectiveness, and elaborated on the different initiatives for immigrant integration locally. Ellen Andrews is the Office Director at Church World Service in Durham which facilitates refugee resettlement. Their work includes job placement, school enrollment, English instruction, rides to or from the airport, help with paperwork, assistance finding housing, etc. Kelly Owensby is the Project Director at Transplanting Traditions Community which helps refugees develop entrepreneurial skills through sustainable farming. On an 8-acre plot of land in Chapel Hill, predominately Burmese refugees harvest produce to sell. All of their generated profit goes directly back to the farmers, and in addition to this business venture, the organization provides English, communication, public speaking, and leadership skills classes as well as childcare in the summer. Madison Hayes is from the Refugee Community Partnership in Carrboro which pairs volunteers with refugee families to assist with all aspects of integration. The integration tactics of all these projects are different and innovative, and they all seek to alleviate the chronic cycle of isolation, the damaged sense of self-worth due to dependency, fear of strangers and public places, and other invisible barriers refugees may experience upon arrival to their new country. The technical and emotional obstacles refugees face are often overlooked, leading to the development of marginalized and disconnected communities. These organizations rely on volunteers to accomplish their goals. Ryan Nilsen, from the Carolina Center for Public Service, brought up the impact of student volunteers and each panelist commented on their experiences working with them. As an undergraduate, it was extremely interesting to hear feedback about youth volunteers. The non-profit debate has been a topic I have internally grappled with a lot lately, and I wonder how effective my support is or has been. A lot of non-profits run on a tight budget affecting their hiring ability; therefore, many organizations rely on volunteers to carry out their vision. Students tend to be very enthusiastic and eager to do whatever is needed of them; however, sometimes they lack professionalism and commitment to the cause. Going forward on my path to understanding service learning and how to best integrate refugee populations, I feel that the criticisms of student volunteerism, the resources to get more involved, and the background of various integration strategies have greatly inspired me to think critically about where and how I can be most helpful in solving this problem, one I deeply care about. Because of media coverage, most people would think of the Syrian Refugee Crisis as the main refugee situation to date, but conflict exists all over the world making refugee integration not just a European issue, but a global one.