Refugee mentorship program staffed by UNL students faces volunteer shortage

Posted on November 23, 2016 at 5:32 pm

Lucy Long, in the green jacket, and Katie Siem, in the black jacket, with four of the children in Yazidi family they mentor. Long and Siem volunteer with Lincoln Friends of Refugees, a mentorship program staffed almost entirely by students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Lucy Long, in the green jacket, and Katie Seim, in the black jacket, with four of the children in a Yazidi family they mentor. Long and Seim volunteer with Lincoln Friends of Refugees, a mentorship program staffed mostly by students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. / Photo by Joe McCarty

By Joe McCarty

Every Monday, Lucy Long, a secondary math and English education major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, spends about an hour mentoring a refugee family, teaching them English and helping them adjust to life in the United States.

In the grand scheme of things, it’s a small amount of time. But for Long of Lincoln, who also tutors high school students, leads a Bible study, visits Alzheimer’s patients and talks with homeless people in downtown Lincoln, it’s a considerable investment.

“It’s like a part-time job I don’t get paid for but definitely better than a part-time job,” she said.

Long is a volunteer at Lincoln Friends of Refugees, a refugee mentorship program staffed almost entirely by UNL students.

But the organization doesn’t have as many volunteers as it needs. Only about 12 students volunteer each semester, and two mentors are assigned to each refugee family. So only about six families are mentored, and more families want mentors but can’t get them due to the volunteer shortage, according to Drew Miller, the founder and director of the program.

Teaching English is foremost task

Miller started Lincoln Friends of Refugees as a UNL student in the fall 2013 semester to give busy college students the opportunity to work with refugees. He modeled the program on the TeamMates mentoring program, so he requires students to spend at least one hour a week with a refugee family for three months. During that time, volunteers help the refugees acculturate to the U.S., primarily by immersing them in English.

“I always say that it’s the best opportunity to put the refugees in a place where they have to encounter the English language,” Miller said.

Long, who has mentored three families, said the volunteers are given packets of English lessons for them to go over with the refugees.

But the material isn’t necessarily taught in a classroom lecture format. One Yazidi girl Long worked with liked to pretend to be a teacher, so Long let her lead the instruction.

“You love kids that are energetic and passionate, but then you want to direct that energy and passion into learning,” Long said.

The three sons in a Yazidi family in Lincoln laugh as they practice the English alphabet. Every Monday, two student volunteers from Lincoln Friends of Refugees meet with the family to help them learn English and adjust to American life.

Two of the three sons in a Yazidi family laugh as they practice the English alphabet. Every Monday, two student volunteers from Lincoln Friends of Refugees meet with the family to help them learn English and adjust to American life. / Photo by Joe McCarty

On Halloween night, Long and another volunteer, Katie Seim, were at the home of the Yazidi family they had been mentoring for about a month. In the modestly furnished and dimly lit living room, they sat next to small cups of chai on a rug nearly as big as the room.

The family has five children, so on this night, Long and Seim, a finance major at UNL, helped with math homework of varying degrees of difficulty.

When the father came home from the store, Long and Seim helped him go through his mail, explaining each piece to him and telling him what do with a bill and a report card, which showed that one of the daughters has all A’s and B’s.

No one in the family speaks much English yet, so throughout the night, they used the Google Translate app on one of the daughter’s phones, although the translations are often humorously inaccurate.

The father took one of the chai cups back to the kitchen and brought out snacks for his guests — first pistachios, then mini candy bars. It was Halloween, after all.

All of the refugees Long has worked with have made her feel like part of the family, offering her Coca-Cola, orange soda or even beer, which she politely turned down.

Long said the father in another Yazidi family told her and another mentor through a translator, “While you’re here, you’re my daughters. If you’re cold, tell me to turn up the heat. If you’re hungry, get something from the fridge. If I don’t understand, just do it for yourself.”

Students are too busy or unreliable

Despite the benefits of working with refugees for college students like Long, the program struggles to attract more volunteers. Miller said the main reason is that college students have such busy schedules.

And some college students aren’t dependable, so Miller only accepts volunteers who he knows can make it every week.

“I’d rather have six families get a lot attention in a semester than have 20 families where 15 of them are like, ‘Yeah, we saw them once or twice,'” he said.

Long said although there are many families who need help, it’s hard to move from one family after getting to know them.

“I know it’s cliché, but it’s like you really get more out of it than you give.”

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