I'm Young and Broke. How am I supposed to help refugees?

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By Meaghan Webster

My awareness of the plight of refugees began during my freshman year of college. I had just joined Gonzaga University’s Model United Nations club, and I had to research why so many people kept arriving from Africa on Europe’s shores in boats.

As I learned more about the topic, Gonzaga was visited by an official from the United Nations’ chief refugee aid agency, Marie Wilson. As a member of Model UN, I got to ask her questions about what working in refugee camps in Romania is like. Her firsthand stories about the horror of emergency evacuations of entire cities and rival ethnic groups clashing in the camps opened my eyes to the issue.

That was in 2011, before the refugee issue was sexy for politicians.

In my sophomore year of college, I had the opportunity to further my understanding of refugees’ stories on a service trip to Denver with other Gonzaga students, called Mission Possible. My group members and I spent a week working with adult refugees who had been resettled in Denver from camps abroad. We helped them learn workplace English, such as common job-interview questions and how to tell time using the Latin (English) alphabet, because many of the refugees came from countries like Burma and Nepal, where an entirely different alphabet and numbering system are used.

Imagine losing one or all of your family members to a violent conflict or military coup, spending years in a camp in the desert, until you are finally shuffled to a new country by the UN – where you can’t speak the language or even interpret its street signs. How are you supposed to find a place to live? To find the grocery store, or a job?

These problems weighed on the refugees we worked with, and I could see how overwhelmed they felt. Some were enthusiastic, like my partner Hari. But when they struggled to differentiate between the numbers ’13’ and ’31’ on our practice clocks, I felt their resigned frustration, and I couldn’t blame them.

The refugee issue has stuck with me. Perhaps it’s because I’ve interacted with refugees as real people and not only as statistics in the news. But I increasingly believe that we as a prosperous nation – that claims to be the best in the world – have a responsibility to welcome refugees and do what we can to make their lives better. When we tout how great our country and the Western world is, are we really so surprised that they risk their lives to come here or to Europe?

Refugees of today flee war, violence and persecution from ISIS, corrupt governments, and human traffickers. Yet leaders of countries that might open their doors instead debate how best to keep them out. I know that immigration politics and fears about jobs fuel many of these discussions, but they all seem to miss the overarching point that these people have run from danger and need refuge.

As Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said at the Social Good Summit in New York this weekend, “Put yourself in the shoes of a person being turned away, in the shoes of a person who has left their home in search of a ‘free’ country, to be treated like an animal.”

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Refugees and fellow volunteers after English class in Denver, 2012

I think most agree that this crisis needs to be addressed better. But I can almost hear you mutter through my laptop screen – What am I supposed to do from here in the U.S.? Especially if I’m broke and can’t donate money? Spreading refugee news on social media is important but feels fruitless. What can I ACTUALLY do to help these people?

I have answers for you:

  1. Volunteer with your local refugee resettlement agencysuch as World Relief. After my trip to Denver, I connected with the Spokane World Relief office near Gonzaga. You’d be surprised how many cities have large refugee populations and organizations like World Relief. They ease refugees’ transition into the U.S. by helping them learn English, find jobs and apartments, and navigate the American school system. You can intern or volunteer with these offices for a few hours per week.
  2. Be creative like this German nonprofit that created the “AirBnB for refugees.” Started last year by a couple of concerned 20-somethings who wanted to rent out their own spare room, Flüchtlinge Willkommen “essentially pairs volunteers with local refugee organizations, then — once their new roommate has moved in — helps them pay rent and negotiate any cultural or linguistic issues.”
  3. Write to your local, state, or federal lawmakers and encourage them to offer tax credits to households that volunteer to house refugees until they are able to find a permanent place to stay. Award-Winning Social Entrepreneur Leila Janah suggested this idea to the Department of State and Secretary of State John Kerry last week.

Finally, to learn more, read:

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