Student groups’ noble efforts to help refugees

Recent reports from the United Nations note an unprecedented 65.6 million people around the world currently displaced from their homes. Often fleeing conflict, religious persecution, and extreme poverty, among them are nearly 22.5 million refugees—half of whom are under the age of 18.

With the highest levels of displacement on record, we’re witnessing the “humanitarian crisis of our time,” says Charlotte Laracy, a senior political science and communications major at the Annenberg School for Communication, and the communications director of the newly formed Penn Undergraduates for Refugee Empowerment, or PURE.

Founded by junior political science and journalism student Stephen Damianos, PURE is just one of several student-run groups on Penn’s campus, old and new alike, that are asserting noble efforts to help refugees through advocacy, education, fundraising, raising awareness, and delivering vital support and resources to those most in need.

“We are at one of the best institutions in the world, and I think every student has new ideas to help this large population of refugees,” Laracy says. “Everyone can help.”

PURE’s three main goals are to promote advocacy and awareness (Laracy publishes a monthly newsletter for the group’s members about a different refugee topic), provide tutoring (they work with Paper Airplanes to educate people affected by conflict, as well as teach English at Lea Elementary to students whose families fled to West Philadelphia), and raise money to help refugees go to college.

“Recently, with American policy retracting refugees from coming to the U.S. and the rhetoric around refugees, we feel that it’s more important than ever to have these conversations,” Laracy says. “We don’t want to impose on them by telling them what they need. We want to have conversations and build partnerships with people and organizations here in Philadelphia and abroad to help refugees with their journey.”

Another new group on campus, Penn FilmAid, garnered its inspiration after a summer study abroad trip, which took 11 Penn students to Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, where they worked with FilmAid International. The student-run group supports the use of media, especially film, to create and promote multi-dimensional stories about refugees and immigrants; sheds light on refugee issues; advocates for policy changes in support of refugees and immigrants; helps train refugees as creators of media by conducting workshops on screenwriting, sound, social media, and production, both locally and abroad; and helps NGOs create media for refugee information and education.

In addition, Sonari Chidi, co-president of Penn FilmAid, says the group is hoping to help refugees from Kakuma get their documentaries entered in film festivals, as well as establish fundraisers that collect filmmaking equipment for the refugees abroad.

“They have to overcome so many obstacles to be able to even make the films in the refugee camps, and we want to help them get their films out now,” says Chidi, who is majoring in cinema and media studies and Africana studies. “It’s so important to have the voices of the refugees themselves heard.”

Being able to work with the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) at Penn Law School was one of the main reasons Arhama Rushdi chose the University for graduate school. Rushdi, a third-year Penn Law student and a child of refugees from Pakistan, is co-director of the group, which is housed in the Toll Public Interest Center.

The model for IRAP, a national organization started at Yale (formerly the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project), is to have law students work as volunteers with supervising attorneys on international refugee cases. The Penn chapter, Rushdi says, at any one time has up to 20 open cases and more than 100 student volunteers who help with Refugee Status Determination, getting people settled in the U.S., and any issues in between. 

Remembering a trip to one of IRAP’s offices in Beirut, Lebanon, Rushdi says she worked with a lot of families with children who were severely sick. They needed refugee status to save their lives.

“One mother said she always thought her one child would become an engineer and the other would become a doctor—but that for the longest time she stopped thinking of their futures because she knew they probably wouldn’t have one,” Rushdi recalls. “She said, ‘After you guys took the case, I started thinking about their futures again.’”

It’s those moments where Rushdi realizes all the hard work is worth the effort.

“When we hear about everything going on, we all ask, ‘What can I do?’” Rushdi says. “Knowing that, working with an organization that is front and center in combating policies that are anti-American, because the U.S. has always been at the forefront of helping refugees, and seeing us take steps backward, it’s helpful to know that I am doing something.”

Penn Refugee Student groups