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Look to your community, not across the globe, to help those in need

Published: January 31, 2013
Section: Opinions


Although many students travel across the globe to serve those less fortunate, there are plentiful opportunities for service in our own backyards. One does not need to travel to a third-world country to help people who are suffering from injustices. As the refugee population of the United States continues to increase, there are people right here that need help and are facing difficulties even after leaving the terrible conditions of their homelands.

Refugees are resettling in the United States from countries such as Nepal, Sudan, Iraq, Burma, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Ethiopia. They are some of the lucky ones who have been able to get sponsors in the states that allow them to escape violence and persecution. However, they are now in a country they may know nothing about. More than half of new refugees do not speak any English, presenting an enormous barrier to communication. They also have little knowledge of U.S. culture, making typical daily activities more difficult and confusing and likely even frightening. When they were in their home countries, focusing on surviving from day to day in refugee camps or fleeing the country, they couldn’t possibly focus their energies on learning English or American customs.

Students that want to make an impact in the world can start right in their own neighborhoods, where refugees are making their new homes. Refugees face difficulties toward accessing services, and students can step in to help while learning about new cultures and experiences. Some refugees were dignitaries, had important government positions or were highly-educated in their home countries, but here in the U.S. they do not have the tools to express themselves. Students can reach out through community organizations to introduce others to life in the U.S.

English language learning initiatives, helping people by tutoring them in a language you already know, can give people the basic skills they need to perform typical daily tasks: buying food from the grocery store, calling a friend, setting up a doctor’s appointment, applying for a job. A lack of communication limits refugees’ future opportunities in the U.S. They just need someone willing to teach them.

Pre-med students interested in becoming physicians can have an especially important role in providing assistance. Refugees must have a physical exam within 30 days of arrival, and some of them have specific problems or diseases that are not usually prevalent in the U.S. Tuberculosis is a particular disease that can affect many, and students can learn from those who suffer from the disease here in the U.S. Primary care health providers can lead a person’s new life in the right direction, creating a link between the patient and provider that can lead to trust. Refugees need people that can help them navigate the health system with its various intricacies and confusing policies, and case managers can help set up continuity of care.

One doesn’t have to travel to Africa or the Middle East to see injustice against these people. For a multitude of reasons, refugees do not always receive the same treatment as middle-class Americans. Even after escaping war zones, they face discrimination and disrespect in the country claiming to provide a safe haven for them. Perhaps because of the way they look, act, dress, or the difficulties in communication, people with whom they interact may quickly become impatient and unkind. As citizens of the U.S., we have a duty to welcome our new neighbors with kindness. They deserve our respect, just as anyone else.

Social injustices are easily seen when many refugees are found in low-income areas, facing difficulties finding jobs, and are forced to move from a safe neighborhood because their landlords request unreasonable money for rent. As students, we can address these injustices by working with different groups that focus on providing equal opportunity and equal access to services. Adult empowerment courses, teaching life skills such as sewing and money management, are vital to helping refugees overcome their struggles in order to create independent lives for themselves.

One doesn’t even need to travel across the world to hear stories of a variety of cultures and walks of life. Many people enjoy talking about themselves and what they have gone through, and students can learn from their experiences. Students can strengthen their global knowledge of the politics of these countries, as well as learning intangible qualities such as patience, determination and listening skills. They can learn about new cultures with first-hand experience, while creating bonds of friendship. For those who are interested in working across the globe, working within your own communities is a perfect place to start.

Although it may not feel like it at times, the U.S. is one large community of people. We owe it to our community to help those who are struggling, and teach them the tools they can use to become independent and, in turn, help others. Next time you are looking to help those who need it most, begin by looking in your own neighborhood. We can act right here and now, putting our tangible mark on the world.