Southwestern students work with Plant It Forward. Southwestern students work with Plant It Forward.Last March, eight Southwestern students participated in a Houston Spring Breakaway experience focusing on the global refugee crisis and its impact on the Houston community, especially in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, one of the costliest tropical cyclones in U.S. history.

As recipients of Moody grants supporting community-engaged learning, SU students Amiel Padayhag ’19, Sofia Espinosa ’21, Melina Boutris ’21, Keyshaan Castle ’20, Alexa Kichuk ’21, Vanessa Saldivar ’21, Zeynep Guven ’19, and Alex Phan ’20 were able to participate in this high-impact experience. Leading up to the trip, Padayhag, an international studies and feminist studies double major who served as site leader, had spent much of the school year researching, evaluating, and then connecting with several community partners to learn more about the refugee crisis and what SU students could do to help. These partners represented both short- and long-term efforts in the area: The students wanted to be sure they were helping in the moment, such as demolishing greenhouses that had been ruined beyond repair by the storm. But they also wanted to bolster organizations that would continue to assist refugees after the SU participants left, such as fighting laws that penalized refugees who had been deeply affected by the 2017 natural disaster.

Before traveling to Houston, the students engaged in various training sessions to discuss relevant issues, including international law and its significant effects on refugee resettlement. They viewed and analyzed Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s documentary Human Flow, which depicts how 65 million refugees since World War II have fled famine, climate change, and war in their homelands. They also visited the Holocaust Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.

Padayhag says of those dialogues, “We got to know each other and improve our thinking about how activism, work in the community, and social justice intersect. When we went to Houston, we then brought that kind of knowledge with us.” Espinosa ’21, an environmental studies and anthropology double major, valued these meetings because the students learned about the myriad reasons individuals become refugees, including  physical abuse and being forced to overwork in life-threatening conditions. She also felt these orientation sessions were especially helpful for those students who had not previously been involved with volunteer organizations or projects: “We learned how to interact with people, how to treat people in a respectful way—not perceiving situations like you’re coming in and helping them with a savior mentality. We’re just giving them whatever help in the moment while understanding that their problems are ongoing.”

“We learned how to interact with people, how to treat people in a respectful way—not perceiving situations like you’re coming in and helping them with a savior mentality. We’re just giving them whatever help in the moment while understanding that their problems are ongoing.”

During their stay in Houston, the students embarked on different projects each day. One highlight of the experience was working with Sewa International, a nonprofit dedicated to disaster rescue and rehabilitation. “It was a lot of physical labor, like nailing wooden boards,” Padayhag says, but the students “really, really enjoyed the experience because they got to talk to community members and other volunteers and help out with disaster-relief work.” Beyond the satisfaction of manual labor, the students could also sympathize with the emotional trauma suffered by the storm’s victims. During their trip to Rosharon, an agricultural village south of Houston that’s referred to colloquially as Little Cambodia, the students witnessed the devastation of neighborhoods in the floodplain there. The greenhouses that served as the community’s livelihood had been destroyed, and families were living in crowded shipping containers with the sides cut off. “There was a big disconnect between hearing about Hurricane Harvey and seeing it in person,” Espinosa says.

SU students collaborates with Freewheels. SU students collaborates with Freewheels.In addition to building the foundation of new houses and weeding overgrown gardens with the nonprofit coalition Plant It Forward, the students worked with IEDA Relief, observing classrooms but also teaching ESL to refugees who’d just arrived in the U.S. and were learning the fundamentals of English and tutoring those who had resided in the area for a long while and were determined to improve their language fluency. On a different day, the SU group collaborated with Freewheels, giving bicycles out to refugees and fitting children with helmets to help improve access to transportation.

Following the activities each day, the students would partake in structured group reflections to process what they had learned from their hands-on experiences in Houston. Padayhag remarks, “During the trip, we made sure the participants understood and reflected on the importance of their experience and how it applied to their everyday lives. After this experience, they’ll continue to get involved in those types of organizations and keep going in their understanding of these issues and perspectives.”

Espinosa, who experienced poverty and homelessness firsthand as a child, appreciates that the service project helped broaden the SU participants’ perspectives. She says that many people “see the U.S. as this first-world amazing country, but they don’t realize that in Houston, like in Rosharon, it’s basically a third-world country. There are places like that all over the U.S., such as the Appalachian Mountains. In those minority communities, they don’t have a voice, and a lot of terrible things happen. A lot of people don’t take the time to listen to other people’s stories… . . [They] don’t quite realize how the reality is versus the ideal. But Spring Breakaway helps people really see that.”

Padayhag expressed her gratitude to the Moody Foundation for this transformative opportunity: “Thank you. Without the Moody Foundation support, we wouldn’t be able to learn about the intersections between Hurricane Harvey and refugee resettlement. I learned so much about working with different types of people and learning different perspectives. I’m glad that there are people who support Spring Breakaway in general and who are interested in furthering students’ growth as they learn what their places are in the community.”

This experience was made possible by a generous grant from the Moody Foundation.