The Refugee Well-being Project (RWP) is an annual, 9-month long program pairing undergraduate students from the University of New Mexico with refugee families in the mobilization of community resources and mutual learning.
To participate in the Project, students must attend a 1-hour orientation with the instructors, which introduces the structure of the course and the expectations for student participants. The RWP course, entitled Health and Social Inequalities, is a two-semester course which totals 9 credit hours. Because the students will be partnered with refugee families, they must agree to take both semesters of the course before they are allowed to enroll, and there is a strict mandatory attendance policy for the course. (Students can take the class for credit in Sociology, Psychology, Anthropology, Honors and others.)
In the Fall semester, students spend the first 3 months (August-November) in the classroom learning about practical skills and theoretical concepts related to the refugee experience, such as cross-cultural communication, teaching English as a second language, community resource mapping, needs assessment, advocacy, social inequality, and more.
Toward the end of the Fall semester, the didactic shifts to the practical as Learning Circles and Advocacy begin. Students are paired with refugee partners and they begin to work together on goals for the family, as well as engaging in cultural enrichment for all. The Project continues through the end of Spring semester with weekly advocacy and supervision, and the Learning Circles.
Learning Circles, which are based on a similar model at the Jane Addams School for Democracy, begin in November, and are held each week for two hours at a local community center. (Many community centers offer computer classes, fitness classes and other free activities that refugee families can utilize as an added source of support). The Project provides child care and transportation for the refugee families.
The evening begins with a light meal and social time for all, after which Cultural Exchange time offers a forum for refugees and students to learn from each other through discussions aided by interpreters and facilitators. The cultural exchange format fosters improved inter-generational respect and communication by involving refugee elders, parents, and children. Some topics explored include cultural norms/expectations, discrimination, child discipline, traditional art/music/clothing etc. Others relate to cultural celebrations such as Thanksgiving, New Year’s, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Over time, students and partners are invited to share topics of mutual interest which emerge during their time together. Refugees both learn from and teach students in the Learning Circles, and through these processes, refugees’ cultures, experiences, and knowledge are valued and utilized in the promotion of their well-being.
One-on-one time then provides time for student and refugee participants to work in pairs. Refugee participants choose their areas of focus, such as learning English or working on applications for employment, government assistance or school or summer programs. Students and partners also use this time to map out goals and appointments for the week.
Sometimes separate Learning Circles offer children and adolescents time for age-appropriate cultural conversation, art projects, and other fun learning activities. They also receive tutoring and homework help, as needed.
Each student is paired with 1-3 refugee partners. They work together for four to six hours weekly (outside of the Learning Circles) advocating for and transferring advocacy skills to their refugee family to mobilize community resources based on unmet needs identified by the family.
Students assist their partners with things like navigating government systems for healthcare, insurance and financial assistance, education and professional re-certification, and housing. They also work together on job-seeking, language learning, accessing public transportation and learning to drive, among many other things. The learning is two-way; students learn about aspects of their own society that they may not have known, and are often welcomed into social events and for meals with their families, where they are exposed to new foods, customs and ideas. Because the time spent together is consistent and intensive, often strong relationships are formed. These relationships have proven essential to the effectiveness of RWP. Social support is an important part of life in a new country for new comers, and it is likewise supportive for undergraduates.
Students are matched with either children, teens or adults. Students who are matched with children often work on homework help, accessing local tutoring services, extra-curricular activities and other sources of support, as needed.
Additionally, student-advocates meet in small groups each week for one hour with their instructor/supervisor, working together with their classmates to support one another, identify possible solutions to issues and develop weekly action plans. These supervision sessions are integral to RWP.
*RWP advocacy is based on the Community Advocacy model, which has been successfully applied to domestic violence survivors, juvenile offenders, and refugees.