My Summer with Refugee Youth

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This is a guest blog by SURVIVORS’ contractor Rachel Mahoney.


Rachel Mahoney

Rachel Mahoney was a volunteer intern at SURVIVORS for the 2015-2016 school year. Then, she was hired as a contractor for a summer program with refugee youth.

This summer I had the privilege and pleasure of working as a SURVIVORS contractor on the Refugee School Impact Grant (RSIG) program.  RSIG is an initiative funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement’s (ORR) to integrate and support newly arrived refugee families into their resettlement communities within the United States. My role at RSIG was to conduct emotional support groups for elementary school-aged refugee children from countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Eritrea and others. The support groups were designed utilizing Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy techniques and included psycho-education about trauma somatization.

Before working as a SURVIVORS contractor on the RSIG program, I completed an internship with SURVIVORS as part of my Master of Social Work studies at SDSU. I’m focusing my degree on refugee mental health and human rights, and plan to become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker to conduct trauma therapy for refugees and victims of human trafficking.  Ultimately, I hope to someday work for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

My desire to serve refugee and traumatized populations started long before grad school. I began studying Arabic while I was in high school and was fortunate to study abroad in Fez, Morocco where I lived in a home stay with a traditional and very conservative Muslim family who spoke only Arabic. During my time living in Fez I conducted research on Morocco’s enormous population of homeless ‘street children’ who are led to homelessness by rapid urbanization, family breakdown, and widespread poverty. Few of these children attend school, and many engage in prostitution and recreational drug use to cope with their circumstances. To support my research I volunteered with Bayti, a Moroccan non-government organization that provides shelter and education for many of Fez’s street children.

My experiences at RSIG were among the most challenging and rewarding of my academic and professional careers. A typical group included students ranging from ages six to ten – the majority of whom were non-native English speakers with varying levels of English fluency; it was not uncommon to have at least one student per group who spoke/understood almost no English. Because the groups were conducted without the use of interpreters, the children and I relied on one another to make sure everyone felt comfortable and included during our time together. In addition to the diversity in age and English fluency, the groups were incredibly diverse in terms of ethnic background and religious practices, as well as time since relocation to the U.S. I tried to balance valuing the diversity within the groups while finding common ground in the children’s experiences to create a sense of community and connection between them.

The issues we discussed were both broad and deep: favorite video games, favorite memories, guest list for a rocket ship to the moon, Ramadan celebrations, sibling rivalries, family deportations and visa challenges, terrorism and peace, activism and advocacy, deaths and drone strikes, and on and on.  One of the most powerful interactions I bore witness to was a conversation I facilitated between 2 fourth graders – one a Christian Kurd from Syria and one a Muslim Arab from Iraq. At 9 years old, and despite insurmountable trauma from watching their villages be razed by drone strikes and civil warfare, and from their forced migrations to the United States where they routinely confront racism and exclusion, these boys had a greater capacity for tolerance and compassion than most American adults I know: “We’re both boys and we both believe the same things… It’s just different opinions. But that doesn’t mean we can’t be friends. ISIS is not Islam. That’s not what God wants.”

My work with RSIG, for which I will always be grateful, cemented my motivation to work with and for refugee communities and other traumatized populations. And it confirmed what I already know to be true; that intolerance, bigotry, and “othering” are not innate human characteristics – they are learned, they are taught, and they are transmitted; this means they can be stopped.

edited photo of walking tour

Rachel took some of SURVIVORS’ clients of a walking tour of downtown San Diego in May.