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Campus & Community

New Program to Help Refugees in Prince George’s County

MLAW Students Will Earn Credit While Providing Services to People From Afghanistan, Haiti, Central America

By Rachael Grahame ’17

students stand near a fence separating the U.S. and Mexico

UMD MLAW students examine a border fence in southern Texas in January 2020. The trip in inspired immigration law researcher and MLAW Director Robert Koulish to launch a new undergraduate program to assist refugees in Prince George's County.

Photo courtesy of “Law and Disorder at the Border” class

A University of Maryland student trip last year to observe and learn from the struggles of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border sprouted this fall into a program to actively help refugees living in Prince George’s County.

Robert Koulish, Joel J. Feller research professor and director of the undergraduate MLAW Programs, realized as his immigration law students were meeting with migrants and advocates in southern Texas last January that the Rio Grande Valley was just a stop-off point for many people who would soon be headed to the Washington, D.C. region.

“I thought, this doesn’t have to end when the trip ends—when I get back up to College Park, I’m going to create an experiential learning component so MLAW can reach out into the community like it never has before,” Koulish said.

The MLAW Migrant Assistance Program (M-MAP) launched a month ago, and 15 students have already participated in a training through the nonprofit organization Solutions in Hometown Connections (SHC) to help refugees learn English, excel in school, navigate public transportation and gain financial literacy, both virtually and in person.

Drawing on both SHC’s and Lutheran Social Services work in refugee and migrant communities, the program has students volunteer through the organizations and earn additional credit in conjunction with various courses in the MLAW program, which is administered by the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences in collaboration with Francis King Carey School of Law at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, and the MPowering the State initiative, which leverages the unique strengths of both institutions.

Koulish had planned to get M-MAP rolling immediately upon the class’s return. “Then the pandemic hit,” he said. “Everything stopped for a year and a half.”

In the interim, momentous global events created new waves of need, giving M-MAP a wider scope than Koulish initially foresaw.

“The idea was to focus on Central Americans living here, because I’ve worked in Central American communities for decades, but this past summer, we saw the Afghan refugee exodus and the collapse of the situation in Haiti, with the assassination of their leader and the earthquake,” he said. Meanwhile, the pandemic drove other migrants northward, he said.

Students in the class say they look forward to making a difference in refugees’ and migrants’ lives.

“As someone who has never taught another person English before, the training made me much more confident in my ability to do so,” said Noa Deutsch, a freshman criminology and criminal justice major who hopes to pursue a career in immigration law. “The lesson plans are already written, so as a tutor you are guiding them through the lesson, answering questions and checking for comprehension.”

Presley Dawson, a senior government and politics major with a minor in law and society, has similar career aspirations.

“I plan to pursue a career in immigration advocacy, so working with refugees and immigrants firsthand will be a great experience,” said Dawson. “I also love the greater College Park area and want to help people learn more about our community; building a sense of community is incredibly important, especially since people who are arriving are experiencing a completely new environment and culture.”

Classroom learning on subjects like immigration law, refugee resettlement, political asylum and immigration courts can be supercharged by real-world experience, Koulish said.

“Civic agency is the starting point for learning about the world and changing it,” he said. “Students learn about refugees by working with them.”

Fostering “local citizenship” is another goal Koulish hopes to accomplish with the new program. In April, he’s hoping to throw an on-campus “Immigration Day” where immigrant and refugee families can gather to eat, listen to music, play games and ponder the role UMD might play in their potential future.

“We want to create an iterative, ongoing relationship where they see the university as a welcoming and hospitable place,” he said. “Ultimately, I would love it if our program culminated by delivering individuals who apply to and attend the university.”

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