Virginia Tech students, alumni, faculty help refugee families find their footing
Virginia Tech faculty, alumni, and students passionate about refugee resettlement and immigration reform are working to make a change in their communities.
Aida Shakeri, a sophomore majoring in biology, is one of them.
“We’re not helping them infinitely, but we’re helping them get settled in and get their feet on the ground,” said Shakeri, who volunteers with the Blacksburg Refugee Partnership (BRP), a volunteer-run organization that aims to resettle refugee families in the New River Valley and help them achieve financial, educational, and career stability and independence.
Shakeri has been tutoring a fourth-grade student in English twice a week since September. In addition, she serves as a translator for the refugee family.
“I was there the first day they arrived at their apartment, and I helped translate between the BRP and the family itself,” said Shakeri, who is fluent in Farsi. “When they have issues in school, they call me on the phone and I translate between the students and the principal or the teachers.”
Like Shakeri, other Virginia Tech students, faculty, and alumni are upholding their commitments to Ut Prosim (That I May Serve) through refugee resettlement efforts.
“My long-term goal is to really have them not need me, in the sense that they feel like their English is pretty good and they can carry on with their own business day to day,” Shakeri said. “That’s when I’ll feel like I played a part in helping them start their lives in a whole different country.”
The Afghan Student Association at Virginia Tech also joined efforts to help recent refugees who moved to Blacksburg from Afghanistan, after the Taliban gained power last year. Their volunteers support families by fundraising, translating, creating community, and cultivating friendships.
Last fall, the students organized a donation drive with the help of several university and community organizations, such as the Muslim Students Association, MENA Student Association, and the Association of Muslim Volunteers, to raise nearly $4,000 for the partnership. The funds directly support living costs for refugee families.
“With everything going on in Afghanistan, a big thing for us was giving back,” said Mariam Farzayee, a Virginia Tech student majoring in accounting and president of the Afghan Student Association. “It’s been really stressful seeing what’s going on and knowing that we can’t do much, which is why I really wanted to start the donation drive. It allows us to feel like we’re doing something, and we’re also able to help out the people who have been able to flee the country.”
In 2016, Scott Bailey, director of the Blacksburg Refugee Partnership and associate professor in the Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Virginia Tech, along with two members of Glade Church in Blacksburg formed the partnership in response to the Syrian refugee crisis. With the unanticipated outpouring of support from the community, the newfound partnership welcomed its first refugee family in October 2016.
“Blacksburg is an extremely welcoming, kind community,” Bailey said. “I could list a hundred things that have come up, and it’s like, ‘We’re never going to be able to do that,’ but somebody raises their hand every time.”
Bailey attributes the partnership’s ability to accommodate the unexpected influx of refugees to its work with the Secular Society, a Virginia-based nonprofit that provided the organization with some funding from 2017 to 2020, along with the kindness of Blacksburg organizations, churches, and volunteers. The partnership has gained more than 250 members and to date and has helped 16 families build new lives in Blacksburg.
“Usually when resettled refugees come to the United States, they work with the resettlement agency that’s contracted to the government, but it’s pretty limited financially,” said Brett Shadle, who is coordinator for education at the partnership and professor and chair of the Department of History at Virginia Tech. “BRP is more holistic and commits to a much longer period of working with the family.”
Once a family arrives in Blacksburg, the partnership provides a multitude of resources for the transition into the United States. Its volunteers offer English lessons, mentoring, transportation, translating, coaching, and tutoring for families with children.
“Across the board, the parents have said that what they really want is education for their kids,” Shadle said. “They want their kids to learn English; they want them to succeed in school; they want them to have a better future here and be able to succeed in the United States.”
Shadle helps to provide families with educational assistance for their children. A group of Virginia Tech students volunteer to tutor the kids, and he assigns a family to each of them.
“BRP encourages you to develop a relationship with one family over time,” said Julia Monroe, a 2019 Virginia Tech graduate and former student tutor. “The family you work with welcomes you into their home — it’s an honor — and you really get to know their kids, especially working with them over time.”
Monroe, who earned bachelor’s degrees in international studies and Spanish and a minor in Arabic, now works for FWD.us, a nonprofit organization that advocates for immigration and criminal justice system reform. Through her job, she supports immigrant advocates who choose to share their stories with the media in order to drive policy change.
“Dozens of students have been tutors in this program,” Shadle said. “Some have graduated and gone on to do other things after Tech with immigration or refugee resettlement and continue to make an impact as teachers, volunteers, or creating an NGO [non-governmental organization] to help bring students to the United States.”
Deirdre Hand ’08 is one of these students. During her time as an undergraduate student at Virginia Tech, she took interest in refugee education efforts while volunteering with a refugee tutoring program that was based in Roanoke, prior to the partnership’s existence.
Since earning a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s degree in education from Virginia Tech, Hand has gone on to teach English as a foreign language in countries such as Guatemala, the Czech Republic, Spain, Indonesia, and Rwanda.
Her newest project has been launching Elimisha Kakuma — an NGO in Kenya that bridges the education gap and prepares refugees for higher education in the United States. She established it with three South Sudanese refugees she met while teaching in Rwanda.
Kakuma is the name of the refugee camp in Kenya, and elimisha means “educate” in Swahili. This is the organization’s goal.
Its program aims to prepare students in the Kakuma refugee camp for SAT tests, walk them through the college application process, and ensure their success while studying at a university abroad.
“There are so many young adults who are so smart and so driven and want to learn everything, and there’s so much talent that’s just being wasted,” said Hand, who is the program’s academic director.
Many relief programs and nonprofit organizations place emphasis on the concept of serving, not saving, refugees. The partnership is no exception.
“It’s not like they need our help to survive,” Bailey said. “It’s a partnership, and we’re both gaining from it. Our group just empowers them to live out the possibilities that we all have here in the United States.”
The first step to empowerment is helping the resettled refugees find employment. According to Bailey, Virginia Tech Dining Services has been a primary employer for many of the adult refugees. Once they receive proper immigration documentation, they join the workforce and can achieve financial and occupational success.
Empathy and a humble desire to serve guides all of these Hokies.
“You’ve got to understand that it’s both ways,” Bailey said. “You can’t look at it as a helper and receiver. It’s people working in partnership. One person’s life or one family’s life is being improved, but both of them come out better.”
Story by Savannah Webb ’23, intern for Virginia Tech University Relations