How Austin’s rising costs, transit lines impact student refugee services

Austin

UT’s Refugee Student Mentor Program launched a fundraiser Wednesday to help cover the costs of rideshare services used by student mentors as they connected with AISD’s refugee populations. (Courtesy: University of Texas at Austin’s Refugee Student Mentor Program)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Following an influx in Afghan refugees settling in Central Texas this past summer, both Austin ISD and the University of Texas at Austin have accelerated efforts in helping new students adjust to life in America.

But as the cost of living in Austin steadily increases, that’s pushed refugee families further away from the city center, with many settling in north and east Austin neighborhoods where there are more limited public transit resources.

“Refugee families are forced to look for housing further north further east in more affordable neighborhoods, and that provides challenges to our program because our mentors want to be able to go to any school that needs us,” said Katie Aslan, program outreach director for UT’s Refugee Student Mentor Program. “But public transportation is a real issue. Many of our student mentors don’t have their own vehicle.”

This semester, between 10 to 15 UT students assist refugees across AISD’s campuses, servicing as many as 20 individual campuses. Depending on the number of refugees enrolled and the specific services needed, each UT mentor could be partnered with up to four of five students.

With a rising number of student refugees enrolled at AISD, those needs have become all the more urgent — and the transportation challenges all the more apparent, Aslan said.

“We want this to be a sustainable program. We want it to be as easy for mentors to participate as possible.”

katie aslan, program outreach director, refugee student mentor program

To date, 241 Afghan refugees have settled in Austin thus far in fiscal year 2022, according to data from Refugee Services of Texas. For the entirely of FY22 — running from Oct. 1, 2021 to Sept. 30, 2022 — RSTX anticipates 1,020 refugees are projected to call Austin home.

It’s not unusual for a mentor to spend more than an hour each way, on multiple bus routes, to reach their refugee mentees, Aslan said. In response to that, UT’s Refugee Student Mentor Program launched a fundraiser Wednesday to help cover the costs of rideshare services used by student mentors as they connected with AISD’s refugee populations.

In the first 24 hours of its launch, more than $3,000 have been raised against an $8,000 goal.

The program hosted a similar fundraiser in 2018. But between a combination of increased refugee numbers and heightened rideshare service costs, now felt imperative to build up its resources and assist student mentors, Aslan said.

“Rideshare costs have gone up quite a bit. And you know, we have so many more refugee families, and they’re living further away from campus, so the costs have gone up,” she said. “We want this to be a sustainable program. We want it to be as easy for mentors to participate as possible.”

The fundraiser runs through Dec. 10, and Aslan said the program will also be collecting any student-appropriate books, games, arts and craft supplies and other kid-approved resources. RSTX volunteers also help refugee families acclimate to some of the more functional challenges of relocations, such as furnishing an apartment or learning Austin’s public transit systems.

For Aslan, she said the program is about more than teaching newcomers English or helping them adjust to the American school system. Uprooting from one’s country and arriving in a new location can be a scary, vulnerable experience, she said; the program is equally as much about helping refugee students find their place and joy in this next chapter of their lives.

“We want to be there to make these kids’ experiences as easy as possible — to help them adjust, help them learn the language, help them to adjust to the American school system, make friends, get involved in their schools and communities,” she said. “The more mentors we have out there in schools, the more time we can spend with these students, the better.”

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