Organization empowers refugee youth
Leaving home without a choice is unimaginable for some, and a reality for others.
Entering a new country, learning a new language and adapting to a new culture are tasks to embrace for the tens of thousands of refugees who enter the United States each year.
Students are volunteering with the Partnership for the Advancement and Immersion of Refugees to make an impact on Houston’s refugee youth.
In 2010, PAIR opened a chapter at UH, so that students could become mentors to refugees from the middle and high schools in Houston.
“PAIR has been the most important part of my new life in America,” said Purnima Siwa, a refugee from Nepal who arrived in the U.S. in 2011. “I am inspired and thankful to PAIR for making me feel welcomed.”
PAIR is a local nonprofit organization established at Rice University in 2007, according to the PAIR website. Its mission is to work with the refugee youth to empower student success through mentoring programs, which serve roughly 400 students each year with the help of 200 volunteers across HISD, said Lauren West, PAIR’s senior program manager.
Siwa was born at Khudunabari, a refugee camp in Nepal, after her parents were forced to leave Bhutan, a country in south Asia, for refusing to speak Dzongkha.
“As refugees, we did not have everything we needed and had to work very hard,” Siwa said. “My parents waited 19 years to move through the refugee process, and finally, we arrived in Houston in May of 2011.”
Once Siwa’s family arrived in the U.S., she said she recalls not knowing English and having a difficult time communicating with others. She was frustrated because it was difficult to understand her classwork at school and was unable to help her family, she said.
After joining PAIR at her middle school, Siwa said she began to adapt to her new environment, learn about colleges, gain leadership skills and feel more at home.
The organization gives students a safe place to not only learn about American culture, but about themselves and the many ways they can grow, Siwa said.
“PAIR taught me to have a positive attitude and never feel pity for myself, so I approach every obstacle with hope and hard work,” Siwa said.
The UH chapter was established by alumna Cecilia Cai, an immigrant from China. Having the experience of moving to a foreign country, she decided to make a difference in the lives of those also migrating to the U.S. Cai was honored with the Houston’s Volunteer Award by then-Mayor Annise Parker in 2013 for her work with PAIR.
“I had an experience of moving to a new country and can only imagine that refugees have a much harder time as their families know very little about the language and culture they move to,” Cai said.
The PAIR volunteers put on activities and games for the students, assist with homework, teach English and spend time with the students, Siwa said.
According to the PAIR website, the organization offers two programs for refugee students, which are the Global Learners Program for middle schools and the Global Leaders Program for high schools.
PAIR works with refugee youth because it is a population that does not receive much attention within the American resettlement system, West said. The federal funding given to resettlement agencies assisting families in their transition to living in the U.S. is primarily geared toward adults, she said.
While some agencies are able to receive other sources of funding to provide some programming for youth, it is not their main mission, West said.
West said PAIR has a small staff for the number of students they work with and is focusing on volunteer recruitment. She said the UH chapter is constantly looking for new volunteers interested in joining a movement to help refugee youth.
UH students can learn more about volunteer opportunities on the PAIR website.
“Some of the refugee youth who have gone through PAIR programs have actually been accepted to UH, so it’s a great pipe for refugee youth to continue onto higher education,” Cai said.