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Event talks refugee struggles in Houston, world

Two years ago, biochemistry senior Faheem Bilal sat in an elementary Arabic class when he got an email asking him to take part in an organization for helping refugees.

That’s how Bilal started his involvement with the Partnership for the Advancement and Immersion of Refugees, or PAIR. He has seen children from Iraq, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone and Syria transform from wearied travelers from war-torn countries to resilient and integrated students in Houston — and not the terrorists or murderers the media and political rhetoric have portrayed.

On Monday in the Honors College, Bilal introduced the guest speakers for a “Rebuilding Refugee Lives” event: Lauren West, PAIR’s senior program manager, and Amanda Lane, the executive director of the Collateral Repair Project in Amman, Jordan.

“We forget that these children, at the end of the day, are just children,” Bilal said.

Hardships that haunt

According to the United Nations High Commission of Refugees, 59.5 million people are forcibly displaced across the world. If Houston were a country, West said, it would rank No. 4 globally for refugee resettlement.

PAIR aims to help refugee students cope with the transition to school in Houston. They partner volunteers with about 400 refugee students in middle school and high school. They tutor the students, help them to learn English and plan for their futures.

When the students arrive, they may be behind their grade level, dealing with the stress of moving or both. Teachers may have training with working with ESL students, but West said it’s different to work with refugees, who carry the emotional weight of leaving their home countries — maybe for good — and probably have been in flux for many years.

“It can be quite the identity crisis,” West said.

Refugees do not choose which countries they go to. This, West said, debunks the myth that terrorists would choose to enter the U.S. to wreak havoc.

But the refugees do go through at least two years of vetting, West said, and if they arrive in a refugee camp the average time spent waiting there is 18 years. When they arrive in the U.S., they must start paying back hefty loans taken out for the travel and vetting process.

To do that, they must get a job. To get a job, they must know English.

“Right now with the political rhetoric going on, it’s important to be educated about refugees,” West said.

On the first few days of each month in Amman, Jordan, families line up to receive food vouchers outside of the house in which Lane operates the Collateral Repair Project, which acts as a small community and resource center for refugees.

Lane’s project spends most of its donation money — which isn’t much, she said — on food for families. Most importantly to her, families need to eat.

‘Look beyond the labels’

Jordan, along with Lebanon and Turkey, has received the most refugees from the civil war in Syria. Lane hopes to use resources commonly available in the U.S. to improve the lives of the refugees, who face post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, high-blood pressure and diabetes, among other issues.

For example, Lane said, feeding one person for a week costs $7, and the price for a month’s supply of food for a family of four is $50. To send a child to school for an entire year with school supplies and a backpack: $100.

Lane said this is important because refugees used to have normal lives before the war. They had jobs, houses, cars and smartphones.

“And all of the sudden, the life that (they) knew was gone,” Lane said. “It could have been you. It could have been any of us.”

Since beginning to work with refugees in his first university Arabic class, Bilal has spent four semesters with PAIR, and he feels the reward — not necessarily from having a volunteer position on his resume or even from helping to start the PAIR at UH chapter.

Instead, the most valuable part of his experience has been seeing children become children again. By the end of the year, newcomers turn bubbly and fun, laughing and talkative. He said that his reward has been found in seeing personality changes like these.

“You have to look beyond the labels,” Bilal said. “They’re just children, and they want to be children again.”

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