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Honors students reach out to Jacksonville’s refugee community

UNF Honors students Gessika Walton, Elizabeth Shirley and Sandra Khalaf at their last meeting with their refugee family.
Photos courtesy of Gessika Walton

As the holidays approach, UNF honors students’ hearts and closets are opening up to better accommodate the refugees of Jacksonville.

Honors students are required to take a colloquium class that involves immigration and national identity. But the class also teaches them to develop leadership skills through community outreach centered on refugees.

The UNF Reads Program introduced the students in the program to a book called Outcasts United, a story about refugees who play on a soccer team and the issues that arise between the town and the refugees. The book served as an inspiration for community outreach that would allow the students to get an idea of what it would be like to be an immigrant to the United States.

Many of the refugees that the honors students are involved with are from Burma and Ethiopia and fled to America because of ethnic violence. Faith-based organizations work with the government to bring the refugees out of camps and place them in American cities. Jacksonville is a prime place for refugees because of the climate and low cost of living.

Leslie Kaplan, the interim director of the honors program, said there are about 200 students involved with the project. Comprising the 200 students are 10 groups that serve refugees in different ways. Some of the groups include mentors, researchers and athletes.

The researchers are in charge of finding out who the refugees are, where they are from and what kind of culture and conditions they are coming from — this way, the students will be able to better assist incoming refugees.

This includes interviewing refugee families who have been here a while to see what parts of the transition process can be polished. This information is then shared with the other groups so students can address the refugees’ issues in a clearer way.

Montgomery Steele, a physics sophomore who is part of the research team, said he learned a lot from the hands-on experience the project provided.

“We got to appreciate the culture and learn amazing things that do not get covered in the news at all or in textbooks,” he said.

The mentors also play a big role in the immigration project by visiting refugee families once a week for 10 weeks. This Halloween, the mentors helped the families create their costumes. The refugee children then went trick-or-treating in the UNF dorms to avoid the unsafe conditions in some of their neighborhoods.

In addition, the Honors Program started a clothing drive for the refugees about six months ago. Since many of the refugee families come from hot climates, they do not have any winter clothing. There are two drop sites around the city: Old Navy at the St. Johns Town Center and William’s Athletics on San Jose Blvd.

Nov. 17 will be a big day for the program and the refugees. The plan is to hold a soccer tournament with the help of the men’s soccer team and the Sports Management Program, and then host a traditional Thanksgiving celebration for the refugees. Kaplan said the soccer tournament will allow the students to mentor the refuges while maintaining one aspect of their culture. The traditional Thanksgiving will serve as a chance for them to learn our traditions and make their integration into our culture much smoother.

Kaplan said she hopes a lot of students come out for the soccer clinic.

“A lot of students are reading about refugees because of [Outcasts United], and it might be interesting to see what that looks like,” she said.

Email Kasandra Ortiz at [email protected]

The refugee soccer tournament will take place Nov. 17 on the fields at UNF from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

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