The trip from Virginia Tech’s campus in Blacksburg to Roanoke, Va., and back totals about 85 miles. Multiplied across three years working with the Coalition for Refugee Resettlement (CRR), Virginia Tech students Brittany Gianetti and Katherine Lodge together have easily surpassed the globe's circumference in their trips to and from tutoring refugee youth, cheering on Roanoke's refugee soccer team, and attending day-long wedding celebrations.
As co-presidents, Gianetti and Lodge are the driving force behind the CRR, a predominately student-led effort to support refugees from Somalia, Burundi, Tanzania, Sudan, and Haiti who have resettled in Southwest Virginia.
Gianetti, a senior from Oneida, N.Y., will earn a double major in biology and biochemistry from the College of Science in spring 2012. Lodge, from Centreville, Va., is a dean’s list student in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences will earn a degree in political science with a minor in African studies in the spring, as well.
“Without ever owning a passport, I have been able to meet, talk, eat with, and learn from people of all over the world,” Gianetti said.
As co-presidents, Gianetti and Lodge coordinate the tutoring efforts of nearly 50 of their peers each semester for refugees in the Landsdowne and Jamestown public housing complexes in Roanoke. Both complexes welcome Virginia Tech tutors twice a week.
Along with tutoring school-age children in families' homes, the CRR offers three adult English as a Second Language classes taught by professionals who are assisted by Virginia Tech students, as well as a citizenship class organized and taught by Virginia Tech students for refugees who want to become naturalized U.S. citizens.
While some students may find the culture barriers of working with refugees a challenge, Gianetti and Lodge both said they have grown to feel at home with the families.
During a recent tutoring session, Gianetti sat on the couch and laughed with Habiba Abdiaziz, a freshman at Patrick Henry High School, and Sadiya Isse, a sixth-grader at James Madison Middle School. The sisters, who came with their family to Roanoke seven years ago from Somalia, were reminiscing about getting Gianetti ready to attend a Somali wedding.
“We watched YouTube videos to teach her,” Habiba said, giggling.
“Habiba did my henna,” the decorative designs drawn on skin for special occasions, Gianetti said.
The sisters argued for a minute about the color of the traditional Somali dress the family gave Gianetti to wear.
“It was pink,” Habiba said.
“No,” her sister, Sadiya countered, “it was blue and green.”
Gianetti soon settled the issue in Sadiya's favor, remembering the blue-and-green dress. The rest of the afternoon, she helped both sisters with their homework.
Gianetti “is the only person who comes to help us,” Habiba said.
At the other end of the block, Lodge sat shoulder to shoulder with Furaha Ndayishimiye, a sophomore at Patrick Henry High School, as they worked on geometry homework.
Furaha and her family are from Burundi, a landlocked country in Africa's Great Lakes region and one of the continent's smallest countries. They resettled in Roanoke five years ago.
Lodge said she sometimes can’t remember her high school math lessons, but she and her students usually figure it out together.
“My grades are better when Katherine [Lodge] comes and helps me,” Furaha said.
The hard work put forth by the student leaders has not gone unnoticed. Gianetti and Lodge accepted awards on behalf of their work with CRR, including the 2011 Governor’s Volunteerism and Community Service Award and the Outstanding Service-Learning Collaboration Award at the 2011 Gulf South Summit’s on Service Learning and Civic Engagement through Higher Education.
Gianetti is also a recipient of a number of honors, including the prestigious Goldwater Scholarship, and said she plans to pursue graduate studies next year focusing on infectious disease research.
Lodge, inspired by her work with the refugee families in Roanoke, studied abroad in Ghana in spring 2011. She also taught at a school in the world's largest refugee camp, Dadaab, in eastern Kenya.
When they finish homework sometimes Furaha will help Lodge brush up on her Swahili. Lodge said after graduation she wants to continue working with refugees domestically and abroad.
The CRR “allows students to gain a hands-on experience and understanding of what it takes to work with many different organizations in pursuit of one similar goal: to be there for those who need assistance to get back on their feet,” Lodge said.
Gianetti, too, said the refugee families have taught her many lessons.
Seeing their resilience and desire to learn, and studying the health and living conditions in the Kenyan refugee camps have strengthened my drive to continue researching, continue learning, and strive every day to teach and help,” she said.
The Coalition for Refugee Resettlement is one of the signature programs Virginia Tech's Center for Student Engagement & Community Partnerships oversees.
Under the guidance of Michele James-Deramo, director of service-learning, and in partnership with Roanoke's diverse refugee communities, students provide education, literacy development, and hospitality.
More than 200 individuals are served annually through the effort and more than 135 Virginia Tech students volunteer with the project each year through service-learning classes.
In addition to the Coalition for Refugee Resettlement, the Center for Student Engagement & Community Partnerships coordinates the following student programs:
It also oversees the Students Engaging and Responding through Volunteer Experiences (SERVE) Living Learning Community.
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