The images, by now, are familiar. A baby washed ashore a beach. A young boy shellshocked by mortar fire. Streams of mothers and children and grief-stricken fathers, displaced from their homes, and fleeing what many now call the worst humanitarian disaster of our time.
For most students, the global refugee crisis is all at once pressing and overwhelming, both ubiquitous and distant. The victories of protest and demonstration can feel short-lived, especially when placed against a backdrop of geopolitical chaos on two different continents and a federal administration ever-imposing restrictions on refugees’ entry into the country.
LSA senior Nicole Khamis also watched the vicious cycle of election season rhetoric around refugee resettlement whirl last summer, but the scenes of tragedy were more than just sobering to her. Working at an international nonprofit in Jordan, being a daughter of Palestinian refugees and hailing from a family full of asylum seekers, Khamis saw herself.
“These people are traces of who I am,” she said. “Or could have been. I couldn’t walk away.”
And thus, the Michigan Refugee Assistance Program was born.
In its first year on campus, MRAP has held nearly a dozen teach-ins, fundraising drives totaling $5,000, and a refugee panel capstone event, all with a board operating at full capacity and membership base of close to 100 students.
The group’s most pivotal achievement, though, isn’t quite quantifiable. One hundred sixty-three refugees moved into Washtenaw County last year, and resettlement agencies expect that number to double in the 2017 fiscal year. By connecting students to volunteer opportunities with families themselves and state advocacy efforts, MRAP — under Khamis’ leadership — has succeeded in reframing the refugee crisis as an urgent, local priority.
Last summer, she quipped, was “the perfect storm.” Khamis was halfway through her internship at the State Department when the idea of a refugee advocacy group on campus came to her, and she wasted no time in roping in seasoned student organizers to back her fledgling project. She noted both the state of Michigan — with one of the highest resettlement rates of Syrian refugees in the country — and the University of Michigan — with an untapped pool of more than 50,000 diverse students, faculty and staff and storied history of activism — represented the ideal site for MRAP’s mission.
Jewish Family Services, a local resettlement agency, was also eager to replenish its depleted volunteer force, and quickly signed on. Still, the night before the group’s Facebook launch, Khamis couldn’t sleep.
“I was so nervous,” she said. “I thought no one would sign up, or that it wouldn’t last.”
More than 200 people applied to volunteer within MRAP’s first month of existence.
Today, MRAP has carved out a niche on campus, and is even regarded by external organizations as one of the most reliable sources of volunteers in the area. Khamis worked with a contact in the Detroit Mayor’s Office to form a pilot partnership with the city’s refugee housing program run by its Office of Immigrant Affairs. Groups of trained students, accompanied by a translator, travel each week to meet with refugee families and act as welcoming liaisons. These sessions in cultural orientation can include anything from trips to the grocery store to filling out tax forms. This summer, Khamis will be working with the DMO to bring the program to other universities. When asked about her favorite memory with MRAP, Khamis immediately smiled.
“The best moment (was) getting the address for my own family,” she recounted. “I remember parking the car and seeing their house and it was just a plain, small, white house in Detroit. Nothing would’ve told you that there was a recently resettled refugee family from Syria in there. I remember walking up and being scared of offending them … or their dignity … I was nervous. And that moment, that two-second interval where I knocked on the door and waited, was really filled with anxiety for me. Then they opened the door. And immediately, they were like, ‘Oh my gosh, come in,’ and just completely accepted me with open arms. We ended up talking for, like, six hours.”
These human interactions are at the core of Khamis’s vision, and compose much of MRAP’s strategy of proximity and reciprocity. The families, she explained, benefit from the network of relationships and knowledge volunteers offer, while students become more actively engaged in breaking down stereotypes about refugees.
“We’re one of the only student organizations working with families directly and advocating with empathy,” she said. “What we’ve done really well is to channel students’ energy and desire to be on the right side of things. We make sure they’re doing work, but always with the right intentions.”
As Khamis looks toward graduation and her upcoming Fulbright program in Jordan next year, she highlighted the magnitude and sustainability of MRAP as critical developments.
“This work is heavy,” she said. “And I took on a lot of it … but this has to live on. There are still people here that need our help. There’s an ebb and flow in any organization, but the mission stays.”
Khamis credited MRAP as the catalyst in her journey “coming full circle” at the University: She knows now to leverage her own identity to connect with, and uplift, those with less privilege.
“I learned to make good on the opportunities I have,” she said. “We’re undoing a paralysis this year, and I’ve seen so much faith and resilience in the face of impossibility.”
Other images, now, are familiar to Khamis. Rooms crowded with students, faculty, and staff diligently taking notes on the resettlement process. Trips to Washington, D.C., and the United Nations to present MRAP’s model of a student movement. And a pot of tea, shared over tears and laughter on a cold winter day, in a family’s new home.
See the 7 other students of the year here.