Nearly four miles west of the city’s center, Jewish Family and Community Services is having a broad impact on the region’s newest residents.
Every Tuesday and Thursday evening, approximately a dozen volunteers travel to Crafton Heights to mentor, teach English and offer cultural orientation to roughly 50 area youth. The children, who range in age between 5 and 20 years old, hail from Syria, Iraq, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Afghanistan.
Their parents “wanted to come to America for a better life for their children,” said Andrew Van Treeck, JFCS’ refugee and immigrant volunteer coordinator, “and they view education as the best way to that better life.”
That makes the interventions offered by JFCS so vitally important, explained Jordan Golin, the organization’s president and CEO. Many immigrant children struggle to keep pace with their Pittsburgh Public Schools classmates.
Even though these kids are placed in classrooms with “peers their age or close to their age, education-wise they may be way behind because of gaps in their education because of their experience in refugee camps,” said Golin. “So not only do they have to struggle with the language and become competent in studying a new language, but they also have an educational gap that they have to overcome.”
Homework assistance and academic support are critical, said the organizers.
Dinner, which often consists of either pizza, pasta salad, tacos or fruit salad, is provided by the Attawheed Islamic Center. The programming and curricular aspects are handled by the Alliance for Refugee Youth Support and Education, and JFCS “recruits and trains mentors,” said Van Treeck.
Since the program’s inception last fall, Jennie Schulze, an assistant professor of political science at Duquesne University, and 23 of her students have regularly volunteered as mentors.
“It’s a really enjoyable way to spend a Tuesday and Thursday afternoon,” she said.
But more so, engaging in such endeavors is critical, said the professor. “It’s really fundamental, especially for upper level poli-sci students triangulating between research and scholarship in the classroom but also learning from community partners and populations that our policies are intending to target.
“If policies are going to have any hope of being effective and targeting communities it’s important to get out in the community and talk to community members and the people they are going to affect,” added Schulze.
Volunteers and mentors like those from Schulze’s class have enabled the program to thrive, said Van Treeck. Apart from giving time, many of the supporters have routinely brought school supplies and coats to facilitate the students’ adjustments.
What many may not realize is that “refugee resettlement is an ongoing process,” said Golin. “Even though the official resettlement work that the government asks us to do only lasts about three to four months, the work of helping refugees get resettled into the Pittsburgh community obviously takes a lot longer than that.”
Also often unknown is the continued need to aid these ventures, he added. “People read the newspaper and see that the number of refugees allowed into this country is being reduced, so they might be mistaken in thinking that there is not a need for these kinds of services. For me it’s important to underscore the integration of refugees into our community takes a lot of time, and there are plenty of opportunities for volunteers who want to be a part of this process.”
“I would encourage anyone to go out there,” said Schulze. “It’s really a program of empowerment. It empowers volunteers, it empowers my students and it empowers the refugees.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.