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Supporting Refugee Families

Last year, Vassar students mobilized to greet an expected influx of refugees from Syria, Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries. President Trump’s six-nation travel ban has prevented many refugees from immigrating to the Poughkeepsie area, but that hasn’t stopped members of Vassar Refugee Solidarity from helping such families a little farther from the campus.

Members of Vassar Refugee Solidarity and local volunteers gathered and sorted clothes and household goods to bring to refugee families in the Albany area. From the left, Mojan Farid ’20, Anish Kanoria ’18, Patrick DeYoung ’18, Sasha Gopalakrishnan ’20, Sabrina Surgil ’21, Aileen Hanel and Family, Paul Marienthal and family, and Professor Maria Hoehn. The Hanel and Marienthal families are members of the Bard College chapter of the Mid-Hudson Refugee Solidarity Alliance.

Since the fall semester began, students have been working with local Jewish and Muslim congregations to bring furniture, clothing and other supplies to 47 Muslim families living in the Albany area, about 70 miles north of Poughkeepsie. Patrick DeYoung ’18, a leader of Vassar Refugee Solidarity, is spearheading the effort. “The Muslim community in Albany was helping these families, but their resources were being stretched, so they reached out to the Mid-Hudson Islamic Association here,” DeYoung explained.

DeYoung met with a leader of a local mosque, Masjid Al-Noor, and they organized two caravans to bring food, clothing, furniture and household supplies up to the refugee families there. “Masjid Al-Noor donated thousands of dollars for freezers, televisions, refrigerators, baby car seats, and gift cards, and Vassar Temple donated $3,000 in gift cards for the families,” DeYoung says.

Vassar Solidarity had collected more than $8,000 in cash as well as furniture and other supplies to support the 20 to 30 refugee families who were expected to move to the Poughkeepsie area, but Trump issued his travel ban after only one family, a couple from the Congo and their three children, had arrived. Recently, a family from Egypt that had been granted political asylum moved to Poughkeepsie, and DeYoung and other Solidarity members helped them move into an apartment provided by Vassar Temple, a Poughkeepsie synagogue.

Fundraising efforts for the families in Albany and the two families in Poughkeepsie are continuing. On Families Weekend (Sept.16-17), two members of Solidarity sold some traditional Middle Eastern food that had been prepared by five Syrian families in Albany who had fled from the besieged city of Aleppo. Mojan Farid ’20, who joined Solidarity last year, says the food sale netted more than $1,000. “We set up a table in the Campus Center at 9:30 Saturday morning and stayed until 4pm,” says Farid, a geography major from Boise, ID. “It’s important to do this work, and I look forward to meeting the families personally and continuing to find ways to help them.”

Farid, whose family is from Iran, says she was involved in some resettlement efforts in Boise when she was in high school. Her mother works for World Relief, an international organization that works with local churches to provide support for refuges and other disenfranchised families. “I had this skill set, so when I learned about Solidarity, I thought I should use it here at Vassar,” she says.

DeYoung says the Solidarity group will continue to support refugee families wherever it finds them. Current fundraising efforts are targeted primarily for a Muslim school in the Albany area that is providing scholarships for the children of some of the refugee families. “We’re continuing to work with our partners in the interfaith community to collect money, baby supplies, and school supplies, and students in several local high schools have started a winter clothing drive,” he says. “It’s been gratifying to see how much we’ve accomplished, but there’s still lots of work to do.”