Refuge was founded in 2016 to help ease the transition into college for immigrant students. Credit: Courtesy of Refuge

Deepanshu Singh said he didn’t have a program like Refuge when he moved to the United States from India in 2012 as a high school freshman.

Singh, a third-year in biology, said he was lucky enough to have guidance counselors and friends to help him learn about the U.S. college experience and application process. However, many immigrants and refugees are not as fortunate as Singh was.

Refuge, a nonprofit organization, was founded on Ohio State’s campus in 2016 to provide guidance to high school-aged refugees and immigrants in their pursuit of higher education.

“[Refugee and immigrant] kids that are younger, they have time to really adjust here and get through school,” Priyanka Jain, president of the Ohio State chapter of Refuge, said. “But there are a lot of people that come between the ages of 14 and 20, and they lose a lot.”

Refuge’s program combines technology-based mentorship and informational curriculum to prepare participants for their transition to the U.S. higher education system.

The online curriculum is organized into modules with lessons on ACT and SAT prep, resumes, interviews, college applications, savings accounts and several other resources crucial for transitioning into adulthood.

Jain, a third-year in marketing, said that while Ohio State is the only chapter of Refuge to date, the University of Cincinnati is in the process of establishing a chapter of the nonprofit, with other universities also expressing interest.

Ohio State alumnus Abd Al-Rahman Traboulsi said himself, Jackson Frazier and Nima Dahir recognized a lack of resources in Columbus for foreign-born adolescents, which prompted them to found the nonprofit.

Traboulsi said after months of planning and collecting funding, the organization launched the pilot program in January 2017.

Jain said when the program began in 2017, half of the mentees dropped out when President Donald Trump announced an executive order that suspended refugees from entering the U.S. and prohibited travelers from seven other Middle Eastern countries.

“They were very scared. Some of them, they didn’t trust our organization,” Jain said. “It’s hard. If you have been placed in a number of different locations, and you’re finally somewhere you’re supposed to feel safe and all of a sudden that’s taken out from under you, it makes sense. That’s something that is difficult, making sure these families know they can trust us.”

After numerous court challenges, the executive order — also labeled the travel ban or Muslim ban — was revised twice and upheld in the Supreme Court in June 2018.

Singh, media and marketing chair of the Ohio State chapter of Refuge, said awareness of the organization increased on campus when refugees were a hot topic, but the conversation died down, and people don’t recognize that the crisis continues.

The majority of the program’s mentees have lived in the U.S. for two to eight years and are between the ages of 14 and 19. Jain said that some of the mentees that have been here for two years have unstable lives and don’t have a full grasp on English, causing them to have that additional stress of getting through school.

“There is a lot of stress for them to have a better life and for them to get a college education,” Jain said. “Some of [the mentees] say, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to get there, but I’m going to do it.’ They have the biggest goals and dreams; it’s so inspirational, but getting there is very tricky.”

Jain said language barriers and security issues are two of the major challenges the organization faces when working with mentees and organizing on-campus events.

Most of the mentorship occurs through messaging apps and video calling, but the Ohio State chapter plans events on campus throughout the academic year.

Singh said he can see the friendships that have formed between the mentors and mentees when Refuge holds events, especially with pairs that have been in the program for three years.

“It’s just good to have that when you come to a different country. It can make you feel isolated and just knowing you have a friend out there who’s willing to help you with that,” Singh said.

Singh said he didn’t know what the SAT and ACT were in high school, but during his sophomore year of college he helped his mentee study for both tests.

“It’s something that’s really personal to me, and I’m so glad I got to help a person out in this really prime time in their life,” Singh said.

Some mentees, like 15-year-old Azhaar Yasin, are U.S. citizens but join the program because they are first-generation Americans and may not know anyone familiar with the college application process.

Yasin and Carmen Moesle, a second-year in policy analysis and information systems, have been a mentee and mentor pair since August 2017.

Moesle said being a mentor was an eye-opening experience, and she learned a lot from being involved in the chapter.

“It’s a big learning curve for me, but then also for my roommates and people I know and people I talk to about the organization. The information spreads from [Refuge] through me to people I know,” Moesle said.

Yasin said she didn’t know anything about college and adult life before participating in the program.

“I feel like [Refuge] connects people to not only university but the younger generation to the people in college,” Yasin said.

The Engaged Scholars logo accompanies stories that feature and examine research and teaching partnerships formed between The Ohio State University and the community (local, state, national and global) for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources. These stories spring from a partnership with OSU’s Office of Outreach and Engagement. The Lantern retains sole editorial control over the selection, writing and editing of these stories.