ARYSE: A Trailblazing Refugee Serving Organization

This summer, I will be interning at the Alliance for Refugee Youth Support and Education (ARYSE). Since ARYSE is a refugee serving organization, I wanted to spend some more time discussing the role of these types of organizations in the refugee resettlement process. 

To start broadly, who is a refugee? And what’s the difference between a refugee, internally displaced person, stateless person, and asylum seeker? The United Nations defines each by the following definitions: 

  • Refugee – a person forced to flee their country because of violence or persecution and is displaced across borders 
  • Internally displaced person – a person who is forced to flee their home but does not cross an international border 
  • Stateless person – a person who is not a citizen of any country 
  • Asylum seeker – a person who is forced to flee their country and seeks sanctuary in another country  

Notably, the country of asylum is not always a refugee’s new home. Rather, resettlement is the process of moving refugees from the country of asylum to the country of long-term residence. In the United States, this process is about 2 years on average, but can take longer. The following graphic from the U.N. succinctly explains the refugee resettlement process in the United States:  

Photo Credit: United Nations

As noted on the graphic, local nonprofit organizations helps refugees adjust to life in the United States. Here in Pittsburgh, there are currently two refugee resettlement organizations: the Jewish Family and Community Services (JFCS) of Pittsburgh in Squirrel Hill and the Acculturation for Justice, Access and Peace Outreach (AJAPO) in the Hill District. In addition to providing essential items such as food and clothing, these organizations help refugees secure housing, find jobs, connect to English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, and discover other beneficial programs. 

To be successful in this field, refugee serving organizations need a variety of key skills and strengths. First and foremost, as with any organizations that directly interact with members of the community, refugee serving organizations must have great communications skills, including oral communication and listening skills. In specific, their interactions with refugees must be anti-racist, trauma informed, healing centered, and culturally affirming (not assimilation). In fact, the idea of assimilation can be troubling, as it subscribes to a dominant culture, rather recognizing and accepting other cultures.

The ability to speak a foreign language is certainly beneficial in communication as well, although it is not a necessity for every member in a refugee serving organization. This is because of the next necessary skill to be successful in this field: teamwork. Refugee serving organizations have a variety of team players (including interpreters) and often collaborate with other refugee serving organizations to support the refugee community together.  Additionally, refugee serving organizations also work with closely related, outside organizations, such as those that provide education (including but not limited to ESL), housing, and medical attention. 

Where does ARYSE fit into all of this? While other Pittsburgh refugee serving organizations support families as a whole, ARYSE is unique because it specifically focuses on youth affected by displacement. Because of displacement, many refugee youth have not been in school for a long time or have had gaps in their education. ARYSE has three main programs that support these youth: Pittsburgh Refugee Youth Summer Enrichment (PRYSE) Academy, Girls Art and Maker Group, and After School Club. PRYSE Academy is the program that I will be directly volunteering with this summer. It is a summer camp that focuses on building personal confidence and a sense of community amongst the youth. This summer, it will be running on Mondays to Fridays throughout the entire month of July. The Girls Art and Maker Group is a monthly program that encourages immigrant and refugee girls to tell stories through art, and engage in a community with friends and mentors. The After-School Club is a collaboration between ARYSE, JFCS, and the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh to help immigrant and refugee youth with their homework and career readiness (along with many more services).

Girls Art and Maker Group; Photo Credit: ARYSE

While focusing on youth, ARYSE embodies the skills necessary to be successful while working with refugees: communication and teamwork. It is clear that culturally affirming communication is a value of the organization. Starting from this first week, youth at PRYSE were asked about their favorite food and traditions, and had a show and tell, which left the door open for students to speak about their culture if they wanted to. I loved hearing the excitement in the students’ voices as they proudly showed pictures of family members in traditional clothing, played videos of beautiful dances, and explained cultural festivals. I learned about Columbian empanadas, the Maasai tradition of shaving heads during life events, and the Thingyan Water Festival in Myanmar. Additionally, during my first week, I saw that ARYSE truly is a team, as counselors, volunteers, staff, directors, and interpreters all worked together to provide the best experience possible. Notably, the ARYSE team also has counselors in training. These are students who enjoyed participating in ARYSE’s programs and now want to help other students do the same.

Students in one class compared Pittsburgh to their native countries; Photo Credit: ARYSE

ARYSE is also a unique refugee serving organization because it incorporates creativity and self-expression into refugee support. The importance of creativity is clearly present in name of the Girls Art and Maker Group. However, creativity and self-expression are also emphasized in ARYSE’s other programs. For example, at PRYSE Academy, youth get the opportunity to participate in creative workshops on Fridays. Students can make their own podcasts, explore photojournalism through photography, create their own monologues and plays through theatre, and use natural dyes to decorate clothing. Additionally, on weekday nights, students can learn Capoeira, which is a form of Afro-Brazilian dance and martial arts. In regard to classes, students are engaging in fun, image-based activities such as creating vision boards and drawing their favorite memories with their friends on whiteboards. These activities also allow students to learn more about their peers. Furthermore, many of the students are interested in soccer and can take a virtual soccer class on weekdays. Even while virtual, ARYSE provides students with the tools that allow for self-expression. ARYSE makes weekly drop offs to students’ homes, which include soccer balls for soccer class, flowers for natural dye workshops, and white boards and markers for daily drawing activities. I love that ARYSE emphasizes creativity and can’t wait to see the students’ imaginations throughout the rest of camp (and the final showcase at the end of camp)!

A vision board showcasing how a student sees his life in 10 years; Photo Credit: ARYSE

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