In Rochester, College Students and Refugees Give Each Other Purpose

March 23, 2018

Jackie Powell, 21, grew up in Irvington, NY. She currently studies international relations and journalism at the University of Rochester. Jackie hosts her own radio talk show and serves as a columnist at her school newspaper, The Campus Times. Her talk show and columns focus on the intersection of feminism, social justice and sports. She also is working on an investigative report on mishandled campus sexual assault cases. Jackie’s other interests include the Boston Red Sox and anything British.

“I am using a pencil,” University of Rochester senior Nisha Divan said. Moments later, after asking her students to write their names on a worksheet, one of them pointed a finger and blurted out: “You are Nisha.”

Nisha drove away from the Greek Orthodox Church of Holy Spirit, which houses Refugees Helping Refugees (RHR), and reflected on her first time teaching English. She was enthused and desired to return.

The campus organization that sponsors these trips to RHR is the University’s Refugee Student Alliance (RSA). Nisha’s reaction mirrors how many University of Rochester students feel volunteering at RHR, a non-profit dedicated to providing social services, such as vocational training, English classes, healthy living programs, and legal counseling for the city’s adult refugee community.

Nisha admired their work ethic and willingness to learn.

“The refugees truly care about learning English,” she said.

After arriving at the church, Nisha and three others were greeted by about ten eager students sitting in a classroom. The pale yellow room housed three long tables, along with a bank of computers in the back. While the front was adorned with a sign of the English alphabet, you could hear a cacophony of languages from all over the world.

As the women in the front of the room took out their plastic homework folders, a man wearing a red jumpsuit listened to a recording on his phone. He listened to a voice in his native Tanzanian tongue, and smiled. A laugh followed.

Jessica Occhiogrosso, another college senior, fetched workbooks from another room. In addition to delegating lesson plans to the other volunteers, she also asks them to have the students introduce themselves and write their names using the alphabet. Jessica, the student group’s RHR volunteer coordinator, encourages the tutors to have their students read aloud.

“Don’t be afraid to correct their pronunciation,” she said.

Sadiya Omar enters, greets Jessica, and speaks in Somalian to welcome some of the refugees. Sadiya, the co-founder and vice president of RHR,  fled the East African country because of a civil war and later resettled in Rochester. After observing the refugee community in the city, Sadiya wanted to give back to the community which took her under its wing.

“And we don’t do this because we want something from them. We want to do this to help them and not get any money, or anything from them,” she said. “Because this is something someone did for me one time. So I’m giving back to these people.”

In addition to coordinating visits into the South Wedge of Rochester to work with adult refugees, RSA holds on-campus tutoring sessions for middle school and high school students of resettled families. The organization also co-sponsors advocacy events such as DREAM week, which raises awareness for undocumented immigrant communities. The most recent DREAM week hosted a series of activities such as the immigration monologues, which is a time for immigrants to share their stories, coffee discussions with professors about the US immigration system, and a film screening about Sudanese refugees in their journey from Africa to the United States.

“When RSA was first founded, they really wanted it to be a community based thing. They didn’t want it to just be an advocacy on-campus organization,” Perry DeMarche, the student group’s president said. “They really wanted to connect the undergraduate campus to the larger community, breaking the bubble narrative.”

Perry, a Colorado native, believes RSA’s purpose and importance on the University of Rochester’s campus comes down to its ability to provide “potential for community.” After serving a local refugee resettlement center near her hometown growing up, Perry realized how anything she assisted with contributed to the greater picture, indicating that fostering a sense of community, and connecting with others is “fundamentally the right thing to do.”

Unlike Perry, Jessica hadn’t previously volunteered with a refugee resettlement programs. But before joining RSA, she struggled in homogenous environments, and wanted to engage with a more diverse group. She yearned to learn the refugees’ stories and make a tangible impact on their lives

“It’s a really good feeling when you leave and you can say that you can pinpoint the goal you achieved,” Jessica said.

One of Nisha’s goals that Friday was to help Isha Yusssuf, a Somalian woman, understand the verb “to want.”

“The next word is want,” Nisha said. “W-A-N-T…Do you understand?”

“I want to learn English,” Isha answered.

I asked Isha how long she had been attending classes at RHR. She looked at me, thought for a moment, and then counted on her fingers.

“In August 2017, I came to school,” she said.

Earlier, Nisha reviewed colors with her group of students, and Isha pointed at her clothes, indicating that her favorite is black. When asked if she enjoys English classes, she turned her head and beamed at Nisha.

“All teachers help with English,” she said.

I asked Isha: “Does English make you happy?” She nodded “yes.”

Jessica believes that her experiences volunteering at RHR have made her a better person. She has attained a greater “cultural competency” and understands how to form more meaningful interpersonal connections with people.

Sadiya, who has worked with Jessica over this past summer and during the school year, sees how both the RSA volunteers and the resettled adults mutually benefit from one another.

“When they come in, and volunteer and teach them, they get knowledge from the students too, so it’s like both ways,” she said. “Once you to get know them, it’s like you are a part of them too.”

The leaders of RSA and RHR pride themselves on improving lives, aiming to make tangible changes, and doing all the above with compassion.

“You don’t have to be all big and powerful and have all of the world’s resources to be kind,” Perry said.

For more information about Refugees Helping Refugees and to learn how you can get involved, visit