AUSTIN (KXAN) — During the past four years, the University of Texas at Austin’s Refugee Student Mentor Program serviced a limited number of students, as the number of refugees coming into the country stagnated.
Now, amid the Afghanistan crisis and an influx of refugees coming into Austin, the program is revving up its volunteer base to provide language and social support to incoming refugee students, program outreach director Katie Aslan said.
“Especially now, I think with it in the news and the situation being so dramatic and urgent, I think we’ve had a lot of interest from students and the public wanting to know how they can help,” she said. “So that’s been wonderful.”
When the program first launched in 2015, Aslan said the main focus was finding students who were able to speak the various native languages of incoming students and assist with their acclimation into the American school system. Languages like Pashto, Dari, Arabic and Persian have historically been in high demand among incoming refugees, she said.
Since, the program has expanded to include monolingual students who provide social support to refugee students by playing games and reading, going to lunch with them and helping them navigate a new culture and communal environment.
Currently, the Austin Independent School District is home to about 350 Afghan refugees out of a total of 700 refugee students. Of those 350 Afghan students, 13 have recently joined the district amid the ongoing crisis in Afghanistan, said Salimah Shamsuddin, AISD’s refugee family support coordinator.
Through AISD’s refugee family support office, refugee families are connected with translation services and essential resources needed as they navigate finding food, shelter and medical services. As refugee students come into the district, Shamsuddin said AISD is in the midst of training teachers on how to identify signs of trauma and provide support to students in need.
“It’s all individual, case-by-case, but some of our students come in with trauma either during their migration phase or maybe in their home country,” she said. “And so, it’s important that we as educators are seeing that in the classroom, because it affects everything. It affects your academic progress, it can affect your well-being in general, and we want to make sure that they get support early on.”
Like many aspects of life, the coronavirus pandemic posed unforeseen challenges for the program. Aslan said student volunteers had to navigate mentoring students through a virtual medium — an experience that posed its challenges, but one students were able to pull off, she added.
Last year, the program worked with students on 13 different campuses throughout AISD. Now, as demand increases amid the latest wave of refugees entering the district, there been heightened interest in how community members can give back, she said.
For those interested in giving back, Aslan said the Refugee Services of Texas's Austin Service Center outlines volunteer opportunities and collects secondhand items and financial donations for those coming into the Central Texas community. The UT refugee student mentor program is also collecting donations to help student volunteers cover the costs of rideshares to AISD campuses in the city, so they can continue providing in-person students to refugee students.
Austin ISD's crisis support fund also serves as a resource that provides access to food services, health programs and housing and utility resources, among others.
"Our families are so resilient," Shamsuddin said. "A lot of people think, 'oh, refugees are coming, it's going to be so challenging at school.' We really need to look from a mindset of what they're bringing into the classroom. And, you know, they're bringing their diversity."