Posted by Arab American Institute on June 19, 2017 in Blog
Nicole Khamis, Michigan Refugee Assistance Program
What was your motivation for founding MRAP?
My family is Palestinian and was forcibly displaced, so living in diaspora is my daily reality. I often have a hard time reconciling the opportunities I have, such as going to a school like Michigan or living in relatively safety, because I know many individuals who, just by virtue of living in a different part of the world, will never have the same opportunities I will have. Because of this, I have tried to use my privilege and my platform on campus to raise awareness about the refugee crisis while at the same time motivating students to let them know that just because we may be young does not mean we can’t mitigate the current crisis in some way.
One of my main motivations was that the summer before my senior year, I went to Jordan and was working at an international NGO, Caritas Amman. It was there that saw the faces of people I had only ever heard about in the news, and saw the magnitude of the crisis. I had so many interactions with individuals that continue to impact me, and I questioned how I could leave everything behind after what I saw. I decided I couldn’t. That experience motivated me to utilize my position as a student and make good on the opportunity I had as an American citizen. Additionally, after returning from Jordan, I had a lot of individuals asking me how they could help, and heard an overwhelming feeling of helplessness from many who felt they could not do anything because many of these crises, they felt, were so far away. I wanted to show individuals that the people who were impacted from these wars weren’t far away, as many had resettled in Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. I knew we could find a way to help. That is when the idea of pairing students who were resourceful and compassionate with refugees who still needed assistance long after the three months of assistance they received from refugee resettlement agencies came about, and MRAP began!
Originally, when I started MRAP, I specifically wanted to focus on supplying local refugee resettlement agencies with volunteers. After putting out applications for volunteering with refugees, my team and I were overwhelmed- within a week, we had over 250 applications from students and community members. Immediately, I knew we had to capitalize on the momentum and the resources our diverse student body offered. That is when the idea came to start a student organization that would not only allow students to volunteer with refugees, but would also serve to educate the campus on this issue while advocating for refugees and immigrants.
What are the goals of MRAP?
Michigan Refugee Assistance Program (MRAP for short) is a student organization that started recently on the simple idea that Michigan students could assist refugees right in the town of Ann Arbor, Michigan. The goal of our organization is to make Michigan a more welcoming community for refugees, while simultaneously using our platform as college students to stand with and advocate for refugees and immigrants, particularly in the current political climate. How we do this is two fold: first, we have several committees that do various activities and plan and execute events; second, we pair students with recently resettled refugee families from Syria and Iraq through our partnership with the Detroit Mayor’s Office and Samaritans.
In what ways does MRAP advocate for and assist refugees in the Anna Arbor area?
Through our Welcoming Liaison Program with the Detroit Mayor’s Office and Samaritas, MRAP places students directly with refugees in their home. Students, by virtue of this partnership, have been able for the first time to work with refugees while being students on a college campus. This experience has allowed students to assist refugees in the ways that resettlement agencies sometimes aren’t able to do, particularly after agencies cease their assistance to refugees. Students have been involved with assisting refugees with learning english to signing up their children for soccer teams to even filling out tax forms. In the nuance of everyday life, things that may be common knowledge for many individuals born in the United States is knowledge that is lacking from newly resettled refugees, so students have been immensely helpful in picking up where refugee agencies left off. While a central aspect of MRAP is the interpersonal experience students get with refugees and using these experiences to build mutual understanding and breaking down stereotypes, our nature as a student group on campus has also allowed us to use our position as students to educate our fellow colleagues. Throughout our first year on the University of Michigan campus, we have held donation drives, movie screenings, and also had a sold-out capstone event in which we had participants from our Welcoming Liaison Program who were from Syria and Iraq talk about their experience going through the resettlement process. All of these events align with our central mission of raising awareness and equipping students to become world actors in international crises. We hope that with the knowledge we give our community comes action, and we’ve only seen more and more people become interested in wanted to help and being excited that there is finally a vessel to do something.
As World Refugee Day is coming up, what are ways you think people, specifically young people in the U.S., can best assist refugees?
There are so many ways to help! First, reach out to your local refugee resettlement agency. If you have one nearby and ask if they need any donations. If you offer translation services or transportation that would be even better! Currently, refugee resettlement agencies are being cut off from funding, so any outside help they can get is critical. If you are moving out and have extra stuff, call local refugee resettlement agencies to see if you can donate your items! Monetary donations are always the most helpful and most needed. Lastly, educate yourself! It is so important to push back against the current xenophobic rhetoric that we are seeing by getting to know the facts; brush up on the intense vetting process that refugees must go through, or read up on current research that shows that resettling refugees is actually economically beneficial. Don’t think that just because the conflicts are distant that you won’t make an impact. It is critical to use the resources you have and the position you find yourself in mitigate this crisis. You don’t have to go abroad or have a specific degree to help- MRAP has proved that to me.
Yasmin Hussein, U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants
What is the nature of the work you do with USCRI?
I am a Program Officer for the Reception and Placement program at the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, one of the nine national voluntary agencies that do resettlement in the United States. The Reception and Placement program is the first program a refugee is enrolled in upon their arrival to the United States. This program assists refugees in the transition to life here in the United States. We assist our network of 39 agencies across the country in providing services to refugees.
Do you have a personal motivation for working with refugee assistance?
Absolutely! I have committed to various causes since my days in college and knew that I wanted to be more involved in Refugee Resettlement. I have been invested in the cause both personally and now professionally and feel blessed that my "job" is doing something I am passionate about daily.
Part of the USCRI mission is the empower survivors; in what ways does USCRI empower survivors? And what are ways, in your opinion, that others can help empower refugee survivors in their communities?
USCRI empowers refugees by ensuring that their transition into life in the United States is as smooth as possible. For those of us who have moved from state to state or even from one home to another, we know how difficult the process of starting a new life in a new place can be, so can you only imagine how difficult it is for a refugee who has fled their homeland, house, family and friends for safety to start a new life in a place they have never been to. One way individuals who can empower refugees, is by employment! If you own a company or business, reach out to a local resettlement agency to discuss hiring refugees. For the rest of us, I believe the best way for communities around the country to help empower refugees is by volunteering at their local resettlement agencies.
As World Refugee Day is coming up, what are ways you think people, specifically people living in the U.S.., can best assist refugees?
I believe the best way for communities around the country to help assist refugees is by volunteering at their local resettlement agencies. You can volunteer your time, expertise, in-kind or monetary donations, every little bit helps!