“More Than Just a Token:” The Role of Student Volunteers in Refugee Resettlement

Hearts & Homes for Refugees (HHR) just completed its Love Your Neighbor drive run by the organization’s Students for Refugees (SFR) clubs. The students at nearly a dozen Westchester high schools collected personal and household products for 21 refugee families in the county.  


HHR first launched Love Your Neighbor in February 2019 to offer people an opportunity to “show love” to Westchester’s new neighbors. The items collected in the drive cover gaps between what is not covered by SNAP benefits and are critical to everyday life. These include feminine care items, toothpaste, shampoo, and household supplies. 


“The Love Your Neighbor drive is a learning experience for everyone involved,” said Lori Kapner Hosp, HHR Board member, volunteer and coordinator of the Students for Refugees clubs. “The students learn to organize and promote the drive within their schools and communities, and every year, they express amazement that the most basic human needs are not covered by food stamps. It is eye opening that people in our neighborhoods are struggling to buy the products that we take for granted in our own homes.”


After the students collected donated items, they assembled bags for each family – each one individually curated to the recipient family’s size, ages and genders. Then, in keeping with HHR’s holistic approach to volunteerism, the organization’s “Volunteers Deliver!” Team was mobilized to deliver the packed bags.


Recipients include new refugee neighbors from all over the world, including Afghanistan, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Sri Lanka, Venezuela and Ukraine.


Hearts & Homes has been building sustainable Students for Refugees chapters throughout Westchester County since its founding in 2015. Today, there are active SFR chapters at public high schools including Scarsdale, Edgemont, Pelham, White Plains, Byram Hills and Sleepy Hollow; private schools including Hackley and Leffell; and affiliated student groups in Harrison, Manhattan, Rye Neck and Sarah Lawrence College.


Hearts & Homes founder Kathie O’Callaghan believes that engaging with youth through SFR chapters is an important, and often overlooked aspect of community-led refugee resettlement. “It is the youth who carry on American legacies, and welcoming refugees is a huge part of who we are,” said O’Callaghan. 


The first Students for Refugees club in Westchester was formed in 2015 at Scarsdale High School by a group of students led by history teacher Maggie Favretti. 

The group was inspired by a cultural and historical exchange trip to Heidelberg, Germany, organized by Favretti, to learn about the global refugee crisis. There, students heard firsthand accounts from Syrian and Iraqi refugees staying at a nearby refugee camp.


“We were going to school with a student whose family had just fled terrible persecution, and when you are sitting there with someone your own age, and they are telling you about their exposure and why they are now in Heidelberg, for the American kids, that really blew their minds,” Favretti said.


After this experience, the students decided to start the club with one core global mission: youth looking out for youth. 


“As kids, we’re the only ones that can truly welcome and ingrain refugee kids into their new communities,” said Ismail Ameen, co-founder of Scarsdale SFR. “It was through this club that I realized how important it is to have younger voices at the table, voices that are not necessarily so burdened by the rest of life like our parents.” 


Using the Scarsdale SFR chapter as a model, HHR expanded the student movement throughout Westchester, connecting students with refugees, cultivating other chapters, and bringing these dedicated teens together under one umbrella. 


“Like all private citizens, students can play a crucial role in being a part of the local solution to the global refugee crisis,” said O’Callaghan. “This is the reason we focus on building awareness, seeding new chapters and supporting all clubs with opportunities to assist refugees.”


In 2019, for example, HHR partnered with Pelham High School’s SFR club, led by sophomore Stephanie Munn, to organize Walk a Mile in My Shoes, an interactive simulation experience created by Jesuit Refugee Services USA to show students what life was like to flee and live in refugee camps across the world.


Pelham SFR and HHR later hosted a film screening about Afghan Special Immigrant Visas (SIV), a program that grants permanent residency to Afghans who assisted the U.S. government abroad. The screening at the Pelham Picture House featured SIV speaker and HHR Ambassador Reshad Ahmadi, to raise awareness about our country’s promise to bring SIVs to the U.S, laying foundational support for SIVs years before the Afghan evacuation. 


“One of the beauties of the SFR clubs is that these students educate their parents, communities and elementary school students in their districts,” said Hosp. “It’s the teenagers at the center, with HHR inspiring, educating and equipping them to take on this essential level of activism.” 


Today, students from the different clubs under the HHR umbrella meet every fall to plan activities for the school year ahead, share ideas and inspire one another. 


This spring, the White Plains SFR chapter is planning a fundraiser by selling hand-made tote bags and stickers. And the Sarah Lawrence College group is planning an art auction to raise money and awareness for refugees in the area.


“There’s this constant energy amongst the kids,” said Hosp. “I get texts every week about new clubs and event ideas. It’s really amazing.” 


In addition to hosting drives, fundraisers, and raising awareness in their communities, the students volunteer their time to be with refugee children. 


“A big part of what we did was spend time with children of families who needed to be working or filling out application papers,” Munn said. “We’d go to the White Plains library and read books, talk and just hang out.” It was these small acts of kindness that revealed to Munn the power of bringing people together through community sponsorship. 


“The kids I tutor are becoming so much more confident in not just speaking, but also in their new community and environment,” said Harrison student and HHR volunteer Olivia Naporano. “And that’s what I and other volunteers are setting out to do. That’s what it’s all about.” 


As private resettlement of refugees expands, and with New York and New Jersey hosting the largest population of Ukranians in the U.S, Students for Refugees clubs in Westchester have found themselves in a unique and significant role within refugee resettlement. 


Scarsdale History teacher Maggie Favretti realized this soon after her first year as an SFR club advisor. 


“Refugee children are kids who have lost their childhood, and whose parents have had to divide their time between looking out for them, and waiting on food lines, going to all the interviews for refugee immigration processes, and dealing with their own trauma,” said Favretti. “After all of that, to have a student, who is your own age, or someone who’s like a big kid that you can look up to, but belongs to you, and is purely there for you so that you might feel a sense of belonging in your new place. That is priceless.” 


“There just needs to be Students for Refugees. We didn’t realize it when we created it, but once we started doing it, we were like, wow, this is really important,” said Favretti. 


Pelham history teacher Megan Rice also learned how important and impactful this work is for her students. “This work creates a healthier kid,” Rice explained. “We get really stuck in our own world, our own issues and challenges during our teenage years. To be able to take a look at another child’s situation and get to know that person, really benefits students, and adults for that matter.” 


But one thing Rice made clear: this was all the work of her students. “If anything, I’m a roadblock, the one saying no I don’t think we can do that,” Rice said. 

The students, on the other hand, have a different mindset. “I’m part of the opinion: if you want to do something, you can do it,” Munn said. 


Her advice to future SFR leaders: “Passion shows through. If you can get excited about something, the students you are leading will get excited too.” 


To learn more about Hearts & Homes for Refugees and how to get involved, visit https://www.heartsandhomesforrefugees.org/ or email hello@heartsandhomesforrefugees.org.