When Anahita Ravanpak’s father arrived in the U.S. at 17 years old, he was alone.

An immigrant from Iran, he attended college and spent 10 years acclimating to western culture before returning home and marrying Ravanpak’s mother. When the pair moved to the U.S., her mother found it extremely difficult to integrate into society. Though she was a successful interior designer in Iran, she struggled because of her broken English.

Ravanpak, a junior political science major, said she grew up watching individuals like nurses, flight attendants, and cashiers disrespect and talk down to her mother as though she were “intellectually less than” because of her accent.

“My father just wanted to receive a better education, and they both stayed in America for the sake of their children — to give us the opportunity to learn freely,” Ravanpak said. “They were not victims, yet they were constantly treated as such and many in society viewed them as less than.”

Unfortunately, her parents’ experiences are commonplace among those who wish to make a home in America — especially as a global refugee crisis rages on.

Around the world, families are displaced by war and political unrest. When they do escape the chaos, they face new challenges. Oceans away from the only life they know, they must find housing and financial security, often while navigating daunting language barriers and biases.

For those landing in Southwest Virginia, help is available from volunteers at the Blacksburg Refugee Partnership — many of whom are Virginia Tech students and faculty. Since 2016, the partnership, a nonprofit, has supported dozens of displaced people from Syria, Afghanistan, and many other countries, all seeking solace and a place to call home among the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Lately, as part of a class on best practices for refugee resettlement, Virginia Tech students put themselves in the shoes of these refugees. They researched training needs for partnership volunteers and made recommendations for new ways to help refugees. They presented their findings to the partnerships’ leadership at the end of the class in May and will provide them with an official written report.

Student presenters (from left) are Maha Shoaib, Adriana Mariscal Guzman, Emma Yadene, Anastasia El-Bogdadi, Anahita Ravanpak, and Emilio M. Vasquez Jeri. Students unable to attend the presentation were Eric Kim, Mila Santos, and Alayna Williams. Photo by Kelsey Bartlett for Virginia Tech.

Ravanpak, who volunteered with Virginia Tech’s Coalition for Refugee Resettlement during her junior year, was one of 12 students to take part in the course.

“Growing up watching my mother suffer in this culture motivated me to take part in this project,” she said.

The class was led and inspired by Brett Shadle, a professor in the history department and the associate director of the Center for Refugee, Migrant, and Displacement Studies. Through his experiences as the partnership’s  K-12 education coordinator, he saw limitations to providing training information to tutors and education liaisons when they begin working there.

“I would love for the students to take away from this a better appreciation of refugee immigrant issues, but also what it means to work in nonprofits or NGOs [nongovernmental organizations], and that it does require a lot of reflection to do it properly, and that there’s always room for improvement,” Shadle said.

The students, many of whom have ties to the immigration process, applied to take the course and were selected based on their skills, passions, and experiences, Shadle said.

Over the semester, they studied the partnership’s website and training materials and surveyed and interviewed volunteers and the board of directors. They also read studies and first-hand accounts of the specific issues and personal challenges immigrants face while resettling.

Brett Shadle, professor and chair of the history department and the associate director of the Center for Refugee, Migrant, and Displacement Studies, discussing the project. Photo by Kelsey Bartlett for Virginia Tech.

“We know the troubles of people misinterpreting what it means to be a refugee,” Ravanpak said. “That’s what motivated us to want to come in here and recommend ways to go about serving these people and working with them as partners rather than victimizing them and enabling them. It’s about empowering them to integrate into society and become self-sufficient.”

Among their top findings, the students stressed the importance of the many volunteers — from tutors to fundraisers — allowing families to maintain their autonomy.

The students recommended volunteers maintain appropriate boundaries with those they work with to prevent enablement and promote empowerment. They also recommended volunteers take steps to better relate to the families by reading first-hand experiences of refugees to learn more about the prejudices and challenges they often face during resettlement.

“I have a really strong interest in research and refugee resettlement, and I wanted to find a middle ground between the two and just combine the two things that I really love,” said Anastasia El-Bogdadi, a sophomore studying national security who has been named an Odyssey Scholar and will spend a year working with Virginia Tech’s Elimisha Kakuma program.

“I loved being able to work with the team and try to find solutions to the needs of BRP and help the community,” El-Bogdadi said.

Currently, before volunteers start working at the partnership, they watch an orientation video, review a handbook, fill out an intake form, and pass a background check.

Among their other suggestions, the students recommended that volunteers be trained in cultural competency, basic language skills, and trauma-informed care and interaction in relation to displaced people. They also advised the partnership to hold frequent in-person meetings for general and role-specific volunteers, create a guidebook for frequently asked questions, and provide a system for volunteers and families to voice concerns.

The students also recommended that the partnership use a standard term such as “new community members” or “new neighbors” to better clarify the relationship between volunteers and the refugees.

Scott Bailey is president of the partnership and a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Virginia Tech. Bailey said he welcomes the recommendations and may have future volunteers read the report. He said he was particularly interested in the students’ take on  volunteers’ relationships with the families they serve.

“They honed right in on the difficulties we have,” Bailey said. “And the truth is, it’s a problem we want to keep facing, because we don’t want to stop those relationships. We just want to do it right.”

Written by Kelsey Bartlett