Austin Jewish Academy Students Turn a House into a Home for New Refugees

Austin Jewish Academy Students Turn a House into a Home for New Refugees

A group of AJA seventh-graders worked with Refugee Services of Texas to welcome a Congolese family to Austin. Credit: Kathy Rosenmann

By Kathleen Rosenmann

“Here they come!” shouted Austin Jewish Academy student, Karenna Caplan, as her fellow AJA seventh-graders, welcome signs in tow, spotted a weary family riding down the escalator at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. Within seconds, the Congolese refugee family of three was surrounded by the student welcome committee, offering enthusiastic greetings of “Welcome to America!”

Several months ago, AJA middle school students, a designated Welcome Team for a newly arriving refugee family, began working with Refugee Services of Texas in anticipation of this big day. A nonprofit organization that welcomes refugees, immigrants and other displaced people, RST supports newcomers in integrating and thriving in their new communities throughout Texas.

RST was founded in 1978. Since that time, the organization has been committed to providing assistance to people fleeing persecution based on religion, race, nationality or political affiliation. RST has been an important resource for hundreds of displaced peoples and survivors of human trafficking from more than 30 countries worldwide. Their mission is to provide their clients with immediate housing, household goods and furnishings, employment assistance, education and guidance in establishing self-sufficient lives in Texas.

As a Welcome Team, the students were asked, “How can we improve the quality of a refugee family’s resettlement?”

Their first task was to turn a house into a home. The students launched a campaign to gather household goods and furnishings in order to outfit the family’s apartment. Necessities from toothpastes and towels, to dishes and deodorant, were collected and stored in a classroom until the students were ready to set up an apartment.

Just days after notifying RST that they were ready to set up an apartment, news came that a family from the Democratic Republic of the Congo would arrive in less than a week. Over the course of a weekend, the AJA’s chapter of the National Junior Honor Society, kicked into high gear and began setting up the apartment. Thanks to Craigslist, the students were able to find quality furniture at an affordable price. After many trips to Walmart, Goodwill and Target, the students completed their mission of turning an empty apartment into a warm and inviting home. The last step before picking up the family up at the airport was filling the kitchen with fresh food.

Finally, on a cold Tuesday afternoon, 10 seventh-grade students packed into volunteers’ cars and headed to greet a flight from Washington D.C., the last leg of a two-day journey from the other side of the world. Each student held a colorful sign with messages in French and English, and their excitement was palpable. If there was any doubt that their hard work would pay off, the smiles, hugs and high fives from the family and Congolese community members who also came to welcome the family made it all worthwhile. ■

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