Connecting with Refugee Youth in our Community

During this past summer, a fantastic collaboration occurred between the College of Public Health (COPH) Global Disaster Management, Humanitarian Relief, and Homeland Security (GHH) program and USF Honor’s College students as they began to work with local community partners including Gulf Coast Jewish Family Services, the Department of Children and Family, and Hillsborough County School District aiming to truly make a difference with refugee populations in the Tampa Bay community. Out of this collaboration, Partners in Engaging and Empowering Refugees (P.E.E.R.), a non-profit organization, was born by a group of students from USF that are passionate about working with refugees. It is remarkable to have officers and students from the Disaster and Humanitarian Relief (DAHR) Student Collaborative, HOSA, Students in Diplomacy, and USF COPH, College of Education and Social Work come together to develop and lead this newly formed NGO.

For the fall semester (and my last semester as an undergraduate), I have had the amazing opportunity to partake with P.E.E.R. and volunteer with refugee children populations from the USF area who attend Hunter’s Green Elementary. Furthermore, I have committed to visiting a Syrian family in their home, each week, and work with the newly formed Sunday Soccer practice with refugee youth.


Mornings at Hunter’s Green consists of a breakout session where myself along with a group of other classroom assistants help Mrs. Lourdes break the refugee children into groups depending on their grade/skill level. I work with the kindergartners teaching them basic language skills like the alphabet, colors, and word pronunciations among other things.


As for the loving Syrian family that I visit, I take the time to go to their home near the University of South Florida (USF) Tampa campus to provide that one-on-one tutoring for the children. Once or twice a week, I walk in and I am immediately swarmed by children; warm hugs and kisses, and the sweet smell of tea. Amna, the mother of the family, always has a smile on her face as she comforts her youngest baby boy, who is always slinged by her side. Her three young boys – Hamed, Mohamed, and Makhles – were quite shy at first, but after a couple of weeks, have opened up to reveal their true colors. They are playful, creative, and intelligent young boys, full of zest and giggles. My fellow friend and USF PhD student, Hussein, comes along to help translate homework and important school information to the parents as well.


With Hussein’s help, we work on various academic skills with the kids while concentrating on general language and cultural skills. Skills that can help them in everyday life, whether it be in school, out with the family, or making friends. The children have improved tremendously, where they are able to sustain a small conversation about school. The kids will definitely acclimate easier to the U.S. rather than the parents since language tends to be a huge barrier to helping them integrate into their new community. The parents struggle to keep up with English, lack transportation, and thus is harder to find a job. Amna has flashcards she carries with her everywhere, and when I have down time from helping the kids, I try to teach her a couple of sentences here and there. Even though it seems much harder for the parents to acclimate into a new country and with new laws, language, and cultural norms; it is better than the life or death situations in their home country of Syria.

P.E.E.R is in its conception stages, and the members are trying their best to encompass as many services and solutions to the problems at hand. There is a long way ahead of us, but as long as we continue with our momentum and create more connections with local partners who can fill in the gaps then we can truly make a difference.  


Written by: Tiffiany Portacio, Undergraduate Student in International Studies with a Minor in Public Health, University of South Florida.


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