Design by Grace Filblin

Two University of Michigan student organizations, End the Cycle and the Michigan Refugee Assistance Program (MRAP), are working together to create educational materials for Afghan refugees in Ann Arbor. The program combines the End the Cycle’s goals of improving educational equity and MRAP’s goal of supporting refugees by helping Afghan refugees adjust to living in Ann Arbor.

Volunteers from these organizations teach Afghan families English and American culture over WhatsApp, a Facebook-owned messaging app used worldwide but with a more limited following domestically. Recently, Oakland Schools reached out to the program to ask for assistance with lessons for the district’s refugee students.

LSA junior Rija Awan is the president of End the Cycle and volunteer coordinator for MRAP. As a member of both clubs, she combined their volunteer network to organize the program and help bridge the educational gap among school-aged refugees.

“There (are) a lot of refugees that have settled in Ann Arbor recently,” Awan said. “Many organizations provide material support … we’re trying to fill the educational gap by giving them lessons and acting as mentors.”

The initiative began in January 2022 when a local student reached out to MRAP asking for assistance with English lessons for Afghan refugees, according to Awan. MRAP partnered with End the Cycle to create the program and find volunteers. There are currently about 40 Afghan families and 25 University of Michigan volunteers involved in the program. 

Approximately 6 million Afghans have been driven out of their country due to conflict, disease, violence and poverty. Multiple countries — including the United States — have also played a role in the ongoing struggles Afghanistan faces. In the summer of 2021, U.S. President Joe Biden withdrew all U.S. troops from the country by Aug. 30. During the military retreat, the Taliban took over the Afghan government on Aug. 15. 

Jewish Family Services is one nonprofit organization assisting with refugee resettlement in Ann Arbor. They have recently welcomed around 300 Afghan refugees to Washtenaw County and are expecting more. The Afghan families have been staying in hotels until the organization can find them housing. 

LSA senior Maryam Masood is the MRAP co-president. She has worked with several refugee families and organized projects with JFS to assist them. 

“I think Ann Arbor specifically is where a lot of the help is,” Masood said. “JFS is based in Ann Arbor, and there are other local organizations that do a lot of work. Refugees have really strong ties, especially between the University, its student organizations and larger resettlement agencies. There’s just a large presence of help here.”

Awan described her work as the leader of the program. She oversees curricula and pairs volunteers with the families.

“So far, I have been finding volunteers, creating an outline of the program and structuring the vision for the program, because it’s not like anyone gave it to us,” Awan said. “Then, I’ve been meeting with volunteers and coming up with curriculums and trying to understand how to teach lessons the best. Now since we’re starting tutoring, (the program is) going to be more individualized as I’m pairing up families with tutors based on the fit.” 

Awan said her group of volunteers, U-M students from a variety of majors and backgrounds, are committed to easing their transition from Afghanistan to Ann Arbor. 

“I think something that’s impressive is the volunteer grit,” Awan said. “The volunteers that I’m working with are determined to make this an amazing program that’s really going to help people. The volunteers are not getting an award or anything like that out of it, but they’re doing out of goodness of their heart and putting the effort in.”

Engineering sophomore Caroline Collins is a tutor in the refugee program and a volunteer for MRAP. She provides an hour-long lesson, with a curriculum of lessons created by individual volunteers, over WhatsApp to an Afghan family each week to help them adapt to the peculiarities of American society. 

“Some of the lessons are about public transportation,” Collins said. “We have one about restaurant culture, and some about how to access medical care in America.” 

Collins said it is rewarding to see the positive impact these lessons have on participants.

“Getting to meet the family and seeing the work have an impact on them is really exciting,” Collins said.

Daily Staff Reporter Carly Brechner can be reached at