Syria is now into its 8th year of civil war, and for the few displaced citizens the U.S. accepts as refugees, Jacksonville is among the cities suggested for resettlement.
The city has long ties with the Middle Eastern nation, with a first wave of Syrian immigrants coming from 1890 to 1920.
Fast forward 100 years, and there are still challenges to fitting in. Adjusting to life in a brand new country can be challenging even under the best of circumstances, but for the Syrian children in nearby Jacksonville, a group of University of Florida students wanted to get involved personally.
In an apartment complex in Jacksonville, a group of young Syrian refugees floods into one apartment every other Sunday.
They meet with UF student volunteers who teach English and coach them on adapting to American society.
The work is part of the outreach of a UF student organization, Gators for Refugee Medical Relief.
“My father is a Syrian refugee, and when he came to America he didn’t know a word of English,” Rani Mahmoudi, the group’s president, said. “He actually had to walk around the streets of Jacksonville to learn English. So, his story and his success really inspired me and taught me about how much potential the refugee population has.”
Since founding the organization last year, he’s watched the group take off.
“Gators for Refugee Medical Relief started about a year ago with 3 members,” Mahmoudi said, “and we currently have 96 members.”
A typical tutoring session consists mostly of lessons in learning English, but it isn’t all work and no play.
“They like to have fun and teach us some of the things they used to play in Syria too, which is a really nice cultural exchange,” tutor Aria Henderson said. “It helps them still maintain their Syrian pride while still learning more about American culture.”
Even with so many volunteers, finding qualified tutors to teach the lessons has become a challenge.
“We need more tutors,” Henderson said. “So sometimes we don’t have enough tutors there and when we’re understaffed I don’t feel like I’m giving each child the appropriate amount of attention they need to be really successful.”
The organization recently expanded to the University of North Florida, and hopes to establish a presence at other state universities soon.
It’s more than tutoring, the group also takes its medical relief name just as seriously. They’re working to raise $50,000 to help build a hospital in Turkey, which is hosting more than 3 million Syrian refugees.