Nearly five years in, Refugee Action continues to successfully sponsor families

Consisting+of+about+forty+members+and+led+by+the+executive+board+pictured+above%2C+Refugee+Actions+work+is+divided+into+two+branches%3A+Events+and+Outreach+as+well+as+Resettlement.+%28Photo+by+Caroline+Burns+22%29

Consisting of about forty members and led by the executive board pictured above, Refugee Action’s work is divided into two branches: Events and Outreach as well as Resettlement. (Photo by Caroline Burns ’22)

Aliana Mediratta

Lafayette’s student-run Refugee Action (Ref Act) club has been working for years to educate the community and support and resettle refugee families arriving in the Lehigh Valley.

The recent withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan has caused a surge of refugees to enter the country. In the next few weeks, 30 Afghan refugees are expected to settle in the Lehigh Valley, adding to the 20 that have arrived in the area in the last year.

Ref Act was recently featured local news channel WFMZ for their work, however, the club not disclose the home countries of the families they assist for safety reasons, so they could not confirm if they are helping Afghan families.

Ref Act’s Resettlement program focuses on helping one family for an entire year. From filling out government forms and teaching English to providing transportation and finding housing, Ref Act helps the family with the essential parts of creating a new life. Although Ref Act is unable to sponsor more families, Fatma Mahmoudi ‘22, president of the Resettlement branch of Ref Act, noted that they can still “help with furniture and translation services.”

Mahmoudi added that the work of the organization is fundamentally long-term and intensive for the families they commit to. 

Ref Act is split into two separate entities. The Events and Outreach branch serves to educate and fundraise, while the Resettlement branch works to sponsor refugees in Lehigh Valley. The club works with the Bethany Christian Services resettlement agency in Allentown to connect with families in need of help, according to their website.

Anna Boggess ‘23, president of the Events and Outreach branch, works with her team to organize donation drives and fundraising events to support refugees beyond the family being sponsored. Additionally, the team works to educate the college and Lehigh Valley community on the magnitude of the crisis and its impact on local areas. 

“People should always know more about the crisis because the numbers are always bigger than they think,” Mahmoudi said.

“The Lehigh Valley, in general, does welcome a lot of refugees,” Boggess added.

Boggess stated that “becoming active in social and cultural issues like this is extremely important” due to the positive impact that volunteers can have on nonprofits that may be overwhelmed by requests for help.

“I also think that people can be proactive just by educating themselves and those around them about the reality of what is going on in the world,” Boggess said.

The process of helping refugees settle into a new life is a complicated one that requires a helping hand from many different sources. Ref Act works with community partners–either staff members from the college or Lehigh Valley residents who can provide transportation or other in-person services–in order to best support the families.

Noting that the work to resettle refugees relies almost entirely on volunteers, Mahmoudi noted that “it can get a little intense. You take care of every aspect of their lives when they first arrive, especially with the language barrier, you’re basically taking care of the whole family.”

Operating during the pandemic introduced new challenges for both branches of the club. Sofia Khalek ‘22, the club’s outreach chair, stated that an annual event called Broths for a Better World set to be held last spring was canceled. 

“We make different soups from all around the world, predominantly [from] refugee countries, at one of the local churches. We invite all different community partners from all different religions and do a presentation about resettlement, and we’re hoping to do that again in the spring,” Khalek said.

Despite the responsibility and continued challenges, members of the club resoundingly stated that the work is incredibly rewarding. 

“When you see the refugees within a year having really good English compared to when they first arrived, applying for jobs that they actually like, reaching financial stability, accomplishing their own goals [and] thriving not just surviving…It’s all worth it at the end of the day,” Mahmoudi said. 

Reverend Alexandra Hendrickson, Lafayette’s director of Religious & Spiritual Life, college chaplain and the club’s faculty advisor, echoed Mahmodi’s comments.

“[I’m] very proud to work with this group of students who really live their values and the values of Lafayette College by embodying welcome, hospitality, and inclusivity,” Hendrickson said. 

While students cannot join the resettlement branch of the club this semester due to orientation requirements, they can reach out to Mahmoudi and fulfill the requirements at the beginning of next semester. In order to work with events and outreach, interested parties can reach out to Boggess or Khalek. Any other questions or comments can be directed to [email protected]