Students can aid refugees settling in U.S.—as is Pelham group part of statewide network


Hack-a-thon with Syrian refugee teens and local students organized by Hello Future.

Of all the catastrophes of our time, one that remains consistently in the news is the refugee crisis. Whether it’s those searching for safety from conflict in the Horn of Africa, fleeing drug cartels in Latin America, or looking for shelter after their homes have been destroyed in environmental disasters, refugees seem to be ever-growing in numbers and desperately in need of support, no matter their background.

The words “refugee support” can bring to mind massive international nonprofits like the United Nations or the Red Cross. But local groups that focus on immediate assistance are just as crucial to helping refugees settle into their new lives. In the tri-state area, a number of high school groups have joined this effort.

Take Students for Refugees (SFR), a network of students all over New York State, that is affiliated with Hearts & Homes for Refugees, a grassroots non-profit headquartered in Westchester County. SFR “centers around creating opportunities for students to support newly-arrived refugees while also shedding light on their daily struggles and victories,” the heads of the Pelham branch, twelfth-graders Ethan and Dylan Lee, said in a statement.

One of the activities the group has been involved in are “fun nights,” which allow refugee teens to chat with local high school students and get advice on how to navigate American life. Alex Garcia, the eleventh-grade leader of the White Plains SFR chapter, added that her group volunteered at a picnic to welcome new families into the local community. Over the Thanksgiving period, SFR chapters were busy with a toiletries drive. For vulnerable families, after paying for rent, utilities, and transportation, there is often little left over for personal products such as toiletries. Just receiving a pack of toothbrushes and a shampoo bottle helps relieve some stress while settling down, especially in a raging pandemic, when leaving the house is generally discouraged. Alongside these focused, hands-on activities, SFR students also work to raise awareness among their classmates about refugee struggles through events like movie nights.

At McNair Academic High School in Jersey City, students have set up initiatives to raise awareness about displaced people. Recently, the school hosted a virtual table read of a Ms. Marvel play, centered around the Pakistani-American teen immigrant superhero Kamala Khan. Sanah Khan, the twelfth-grade student who played Ms. Marvel in the production, said, “At our school, many of us come from immigrant families and some even from refugee families. It was really special to see young kids who attended the event get really excited to see a superhero who looks like us and has a very similar background to many of us.” Priya Patel, a twelfth-grade member of the school’s Amnesty International Club, also spoke about their potluck “to welcome and get to know newly arrived immigrant and refugee families in Jersey City.”

Some adults may wonder why the supposedly “self-absorbed” Gen Z is so involved in the crisis. “One can feel powerless, especially when you see just how many people are displaced. With the increased number of immigrants and asylum seekers, I felt like I had to do something,” said Garcia of the White Plains chapter. “Setting up a student group made me feel like I could actually make a difference.” One of the students at McNair, twelfth-grader Araika Khokhar, added, “Although my parents could come to the U.S. on a lottery visa, and my journey has been very different from those of refugees or undocumented migrants, I still share common experiences with them. For example, having parents who dress differently or who don’t speak English as their first language.”

Kayan Abu Jumah, a tenth-grade student at the United Nations International School in New York City, said, “My school’s refugee club, the STAR project, offers the opportunity to work with refugees internationally through platforms like Skype and Zoom. This is rewarding because it provides the chance to have a cultural exchange and hang out just as a group of teens. We even collaborate and come up with solutions to universal, hot-topic issues.”

Zoe Ehrenkanz, an eleventh-grade student at The Dalton School in New York City who set up her own refugee-focused club, said, “The most meaningful experience I had while working with refugees in Iraq was the way we could connect thanks to social media and pop culture. For example, I remember that we were all just sitting eating lunch and suddenly a popular song came on, and we all knew the lyrics and sang them aloud. That stuck with me. I also exchanged Snapchat handles with some of the teens at the refugee camp, and we continue to talk from time to time.”

Speaking on what working with refugees means to him, Dylan Lee said, “During the fun night, when we were talking to refugee teens, most of them wanted to know how they could get a work permit to earn money. That was really eye-opening because we were the same age, but earning an income is definitely not our immediate priority.”

Exposure to refugees also “humanizes the statistics we read about every day. You think you know how much people suffer, but it’s only by really meeting and connecting with them that you truly understand,” said Araika. “You can never get that from reading an article or seeing numbers.”

Youth engagement with refugees will hold even more importance in the coming years, now that under the Biden/Harris administration the refugee cap is projected to rise from 15,000 annually to 125,000. Teens have the exciting opportunity to help integrate young refugees into their communities. In the long run, the exposure and cultural awareness they experience and the bonds they form will help them become more effective advocates and leaders in the future.

Maya Mukherjee is a freelance writer and a tenth grader at the United Nations International School in New York City. She is passionate about recounting the refugee experience and supporting their transition to a safer life.