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Refugee Studies Research: Learning by helping

By Mary Architzel Westbrook

When President Trump announced a travel ban on seven predominantly Muslim countries in January, Felicia Fisher's first thought was: "This is going to hurt my friends."

Fisher was a few weeks into a service-learning course, sponsored by ODU's Women's Studies Department, focused on learning about refugee communities, researching the complex issues they navigate and helping them resettle in Hampton Roads.

For Fisher and her classmates, that meant coaching adults as they learned how to ask for change in a supermarket. Holding a woman's hand when she worried about loved ones and famine. Delighting in tea in the apartment of a family that weeks before had lived scattered among friends or in a refugee camp. Teaching a child to swim confidently across a pool.

In the students' eyes, the experience transformed the refugees into mothers and fathers, daughters and sons — people — in need of something every person needs at some point: A second chance. A little help.

"One thing I know is that the refugees have taught me more than I could ever teach them," said Fisher, who graduated in May with a degree in women's studies. "They're resilient. They're open. They want stability and happiness for their families. That's not asking for the world."

Making the Connections

The course, titled Refugee Studies Research, originated with two questions: How might ODU students help refugees in Hampton Roads — and could that experience deepen their own education?

The class represents a parternship between Jennifer Fish, professor and chair of women's studies, and Commonwealth Catholic Charities.

The nonprofit helps about 250 refugees each year over a three-month resettlement period. Refugees come from countries such as Syria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Burundi. All are heavily vetted by the U.S. State Department.

In the course, ODU students play many roles:

They meet families at their homes and at the charity's Newport News headquarters; serve as teaching assistants for adults and children learning English; act as "cultural navigators" assisting with job applications and doctors' appointments, and create research-based projects that explore the myriad complexities for people seeking refuge in the United States.

Twelve students enrolled in the course in the spring and summer, and eight more took the course this fall.

For some, the pull of the class was immediate.

Bnar Mustafa, a graduate student in humanities and women's studies, came to the United States from Iraq five years ago. Mustafa, a lawyer by training, jumped at the chance to be part of the class.

"I know how important it is to help a homesick person," said Mustafa, who worked as a translator in the spring and gave birth to her first child, Helen, toward the end of the course. "When you hear stories directly from refugees, it's a totally different experience than reading about things in class. You want to do as much as you can."

'Total Immersion'

Fish said the class helps students better understand global social, political and economic issues and relate to them on a deeply personal level, without leaving Hampton Roads.

"With this course, we can offer students a study abroad program locally," Fish explained. "It can feel like total immersion. As a group, we see the physical and emotional effects of what happens when a family must leave their home. We see people break down and cry. We spend a lot of time just being and reflecting."

Jazzmine Hess, who is majoring in women's studies and international studies, said the experience reshaped her worldview and gave her a sense of empowerment - and hope for the future.

"It taught me not to give in to frustration," she said. "No more, 'Well, that's just how things are.' Instead, it's 'What can I do about this?'"

Mary Architzel Westbrook lives with her family in Norfolk. She earned her M.F.A. in creative writing from ODU in 2010.

This story appears in the winter issue of Monarch magazine. Read more at www.odu.edu/monarchmag

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