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Buckeyes create programs to help Syrian refugees navigate American education system

While watching the Syrian refugee crisis carry on seemingly endlessly, two Ohio State students heard the cry for help and knew they needed to do something to support immigrants who shared their heritage.

That led Kenan Alzouhayli and Abd Al-Rahman Traboulsi to each launch programs to help school-age refugees adapt to the United States’ education system. Alzouhayli is focusing on K-12 experiences with his group Buckeyes for Syrian Refugees, and Traboulsi is aiming to help get students from high school to college with a group called Refuge.

“It’s true the (Syrian Civil) war killed people and destroyed most of the infrastructure, but it did more than that,” Alzouhayli said. “It took a whole generation’s childhood.”

Despite their similar aims, the two students started their efforts independently from one another.

Alzouhayli, a fourth-year in biochemistry, moved to the U.S. from Syria in July 2012. He is not a refugee, though still know has friends who were injured or killed as a result of the conflict.

He started the Syrian Student Union last year to raise awareness of the Syrian crisis. However, he struggled to garner support until he collaborated with Community Connectors, a new program within the refugee resettlement organization UsTogether.

In November, the two Community Connectors and the Syrian Student Union collaborated to launch the Buckeyes for Syrian Refugees mentorship program, a year-round program that sends OSU students to homes of refugee schoolchildren weekly to help ease their transition into the new culture.

“They have children who need to be taught and we have volunteers (to teach them),” Alzouhayli said.

Mentors, trained by Big Brothers, Big Sisters of Columbus, will spend one hour each week with refugee children from Columbus Global Academy to help them adapt to their new environment and, hopefully, motivate them to stay in school, said Rachel Burch, representative for Community Connectors.

On Sept. 28, Traboulsi launched Refuge, an interactive online program that matches OSU mentors with high-school refugees hoping to pursue higher education.

Traboulsi, fourth-year in biomedical engineering, was born in Lexington, Kentucky, but his parents were from Syria, and grew up visiting the country over summer break. Refuge was inspired by the positive response he received after a presentation he gave last March at the OSU TedX conference.

“It made me feel like we do have a platform to speak our voice and there is a community that is supportive of the work we are doing,” Traboulsi said.

When preparing to launch Refuge, Traboulsi led focus groups composed of refugees living in Columbus. Traboulsi said the refugees expressed that their main educational barriers were limited confidence speaking English and lack of resources, like transportation, necessary to acclimate to the culture.

“We want to create a program that uses the mode of (the) internet so we can reach as many students as possible.” Traboulsi said.

Created with help from Hollie Brehm, assistant professor of sociology and criminology, Refuge is a 12-week interactive online platform Traboulsi licensed to connect high-school-aged refugees from different communities around Columbus with OSU students. It is set to pilot in April.

Traboulsi said the mentors and refugees will be in constant communication, exposing them to English through more easily accessible mobile and desktop applications.

“It’s a dual process of opening doors to education and helping students adapt to the new environment,” Brehm said.

At the end of the 12 weeks, refugees will spend two nights in dorms at the university, meeting professors, going to class, attending information sessions and immersing in the college experience.

Refuge is applying for nonprofit status to extend help to refugees from other countries.

Both the Buckeyes for Syrian Refugees and Refuge intend to expand in the future. Traboulsi said he hopes the two organizations can collaborate to achieve their expansion goals.

“I’m not a refugee, (but) I relate to the refugee experience,” Traboulsi said. “I want to give refugees the same platform I have to create change.”

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