Jessica Goodkind, associate professor of Sociology at the University of New Mexico, specializes in change. Her nine credit hour, two semester course begins each fall teaching undergraduate students what refugees are, and what kind of world conditions caused them to leave their homes and seek a new life in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
In November students are matched with refugee families. The students are assigned to help teach members of the family English, and to learn from the refugee families about their lives, cultures and experiences. And Goodkind says, they are assigned to be advocates for the families and the refugees try to figure out life in the United States.
Goodkind believes UNM’s program is unique. Other universities have worked with refugees, but not with such an in-depth relationship building experience that focuses on mutual learning among students and refugees, building on refugees’ strengths, and improving the community’s responsiveness to refugees.
Excerpts from interviews with former students Goodkind shared reflect the change students see in themselves.
- In the beginning, I had no idea what a refugee was... After learning about them, I know now that they don’t just flee because they want to, but they’re forced to flee, whether that’s because of political conflict or other things of that nature... after working with them, I don’t really consider them refugees because I feel like that term makes people feel sorry for them more when they’re probably some of the most hardworking people I’ve ever met. They’re more dedicated than I am. I mean they’re always pushing me to get things done rather than the opposite way around. So I think it’s just opened my eyes to what it really means to be a refugee.
- Taking this class has shown me that not everybody has the opportunities that I have so when I hear another person’s story, I can’t be so quick to say, “Why are these people like that?” I can easily stop and think, take into consideration things such as colonialism, class, gender, things like that.
- I learned that we take a lot for granted. That being born in America entitles you to so much … If you’re coming from outside of the country you’ve got… so much to do to just be able to begin to adapt to life here, and so . . . I’ve learned to see more often the privileges that we have.
In weekly learning circles the students and families get together at local community centers, bring food and talk about everything.
Lucas Winter, a Communications and Journalism major who is taking the class this year said, “This program offers me the opportunity for a tremendous amount of growth. As a student I was looking for a way to serve the community, better myself and develop professional skills. That’s why I decided to before a part of the advocacy," he said.
He shot and produced a video about his experience.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates the total number of refugees in the world today at 50 million. Albuquerque normally accepts several hundred refugees each year. The refugees are brought to the city by a private groups that work to assist them as they try to adjust to life in the United States.
Goodkind started the Refugee Well-Being Project in 2006. Since then UNM students have been learning about and working with refugee families. She has a grant from the National Institutes of Health that allows her to study the impact of the program. This academic year she is working with 28 students in her course, and 80 refugee adults and their children from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and the Great Lakes Region of Africa including Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda.
Goodkind says she is thrilled with the way her course has affected the students. Some have gone on to work in the Peace Corps. Others have elected to do social work in the community. Working with the students has had an effect for the refugee families as well. Goodkind shared comments from some individuals.
- “When I was leaving Africa some of our friends were like, ‘Well, you’re going to a foreign country, you’re going to live in your house, nobody is going to come say hello’ …As refugees, we receive so much food, and clothing, and shoes, but then would these white people, are they going to accept food and water from us? And so you guys came in and you were eating with us and hanging out with us and we were completely in shock and we were so amazed that a whole group of white people would come to our house, and our friends find it difficult to believe that such a thing happened. A lot of people are really shocked that this has happened. So our friends are asking, ‘So the American people, do they really come up and say hello to you, do they greet you and hang out with you?’ And we say, ‘Oh yeah, they do! And they’re our friends, and we hang out,’ and they’re like, ‘Well then America is a good country.’” (Burundian woman)
- "For a long time in my life, I lived like a refugee. This project is really good in terms of helping me with mental health. If I was just by myself, with just the family, I would be thinking about the terrible things that happened in the past. But when I come from work and get to meet with him [student partner] and the other people, I am really engaged in the present, and I don’t dwell on the horrible things that happened in the past." (Burundian man)
- "Definitely we learn a lot during this program. We learn about the U.S. cultures and traditions and believe they learned the same things about our culture. I believe we can say that this program helped us to build trust all together. We feel we are much, much more comfortable now when they approach us and we feel we are no longer lost." (Iraqi woman)
This spring the students will help their assigned families assess the job skills they have, and assist them as they apply for work or begin to learn English. The refugees will learn about American culture, and how to become part of the local community. Everyone will have the opportunity to change the way they think about people who live in Albuquerque.
Goodkind has written extensively about the refugee well-being project and her work in academic journals. Here is a selection of her papers.