This past summer I had the privilege of using my Wellman-Hill Grant to intern with the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in New York City. The IRC is a non-governmental organization that provides emergency relief, post-conflict development, and refugee resettlement. I had the pleasure of working at the Refugee Youth Summer Academy (RYSA) as a peer counselor.
The purpose of RYSA is to help refugee youth acclimate to the American school system by creating a mock school for the summer. Last summer RYSA had 145 students between the ages of four and twenty-four from over fifteen countries. There were a total of sixty peer counselors, ten for each class, five for the morning and five for the afternoon. As a peer counselor I worked directly with the students and helped the lead teachers and assistant teacher. I worked with seventeen kids in the group, High School 2, ranging in ages from sixteen to twenty-four. All seventeen students had been in the U.S. no longer than two years.
Monday through Friday was regular school days with a basic high school class schedule. Then on five of the seven Fridays we set out into NYC on field trips. We visited museums and parks and as peer counselors, took the time to really get to know our students and build relationships with them. It was our goal to make them feel comfortable not only with the U.S. school system and the City but also with us. We wanted them to know they had someone to talk to, no matter what the subject was.
One of my favorite moments of the summer happened in the College and Career Readiness class. The students were working on their public speaking so the teacher had them play a variation of the game two truths and a lie. Each of the students had to write down something that was true about them and something that was not. Then, they had to pick either the lie or the truth, write a little story about it and present it to the class.
Most of the students actually enjoyed the activity and enjoyed discerning the truth or lie. Then all of a sudden one of the quieter students got up and began to tell her story. She told a story of how she had a boyfriend in Burma and how they dated for three years and they were so in love with each other. However she and her family soon fled to Malaysia and thus she left her boyfriend behind but they still kept in contact. In fact, one day she and her boyfriend planned to talk on the phone but he did not answer the phone. She found it strange so she called her friend who told her that her boyfriend had become very sick and passed away that day. At this point this particular student had tears in her eyes and rushed her words. Without a doubt I thought I was going to have to take her to the counselor’s office because she looked like she was going to break down.
The moment of truth came and an overwhelming majority of the class, everyone but one person thought she was telling the truth. Her emotions were so real there was no way she could make such a horrible story up so quickly and act so emotional about it. Yet when the teacher asked those who thought she was lying to raise their hands, only her sister did matter-of-factly and the storyteller revealed that her story was a lie. The whole classroom erupted in laughter. None of us peer counselors saw that coming, especially from such a quiet, soft-spoken student.
My time with the International Rescue Committee exceeded any expectations I had at the beginning of my summer. I learned so much about refugee populations and refugee resettlement and challenges facing refugees in the U.S. Yet the most rewarding part of the internship was learning about the seventeen refugees I had the honor of working with. They were some of the most intelligent and perceptive people I have ever met. A lot of times the word refugees are seen as needy, dependent people but the 145 students of RYSA blew that out of the water. The Wellman Hill Grant made this experience possible and I will forever be grateful to Ms. Hill and the Grant Committee.