Catherine Carrasco: Miami Service 2021

S T U D E N T B I O
P
RAA event.
Photograph by Catherine Carrasco/CC by 4.0

Catherine Carrasco is a Junior studying Behavioral Neuroscience at Florida International University through the Honors College. She is an Executive Board member of the Alpha Epsilon Delta Honor Society and regularly volunteers with non-profit organizations. During her free time, she enjoys performing and training in the traditional art of Mongolian contortion.

W H O

The Refugee Assistance Alliance is a non-profit organization dedicated to helping refugees transition into their new lives in the United States. Typically, RAA focuses on the underserved Asian, Middle Eastern, and African communities in South Florida. Since there isn’t a large population of those backgrounds in the area, the adjustment can be more complex than refugees within larger communities. RAA serves as a bridge for refugees by providing valuable resources, education, and community-building. I’ve been a volunteer for them since November 2019. 

W H Y

While volunteering at the Refugee Assistance Alliance, I’ve gained incredible insight into refugees’ struggles when fleeing unsafe environments. Many seek asylum outside of their home country because they cannot freely express their religious, racial, or political viewpoints—staying means facing possible persecution. Some are victims of war and others of natural disasters. These circumstances can leave refugees in dangerous situations or displaced. Beginning their lives in a foreign location is not easy, as resettlement usually involves being immersed in an unknown culture. Service work with RAA sheds light on the refugee journey and their integration into the larger community.

h o w

I first learned about RAA through another organization involved in community service, Hands-on Miami. Since middle school, I’ve volunteered with them and found their description of RAA intriguing. Previously, I didn’t know much about refugees’ journey toward seeking asylum or resettlement. An online post on their website asked for volunteers willing to be English tutors, which led me to reach out to the Director of Operations, Jamie Everett. Jamie has helped me with each role I’ve held throughout my time at RAA.  Recently, there have been fewer in-person events due to COVID-19 restrictions, but we have still hosted meetings while following CDC guidelines.

w h e r e & w h a t

This year I joined the Welcome & Gifts Committee, tutored a Syrian family, designed invitations, and photographed events. Due to privacy reasons, I will not be using their names, but the family I worked alongside consisted of a mother, daughter, and son. Sometimes, I also assist with situations outside of regular schoolwork. These situations may seem easily resolvable, but I consider them an integral part of the resettlement process. For example, the children’s parents felt uncomfortable with them returning to classes in person, with cases of COVID-19 still occurring. However, home education required electronics, and their access was limited. Not understanding their options, they worried communication would be a barrier between school administrators. Therefore, I acted as an intermediary to register the children for home learning. I also helped acquire laptops for them as students enrolled in the online public school system had the option of borrowing these electronics.

Once classes began, the daughter and I met several times a week to discuss homework and upcoming quizzes. As her teachers provided progress reports, we would identify areas where she struggled and integrate new study strategies. 

On Fridays, I met with her mother for our English tutoring sessions using a program provided by RAA. We worked on things like phonetics and grammar. The youngest son already had a tutor, but when they were unavailable, I filled in. Sessions with him were often sporadic and brief.

During back-to-school season, I volunteered to help put together a list of resources for the families with children in school. Alongside two other volunteers, we looked into school supply giveaways before classes started. Students enrolled with RAA reside all across South Florida, so we did extensive research in Miami Dade and Broward County. In addition to school supplies, some events provided free services such as haircuts and health checkups. We organized the list by dates and locations, then created a flyer so each family could easily access the information.

Invitations made by Catherine.
Images by Catherine Carrasco/CC by 4.0

There were two main events I helped organize this year; World Refugee Day & RAA’s Annual Holiday Party. One of my primary responsibilities was designing the invitations sent to the families, volunteers, and donors. Composing the invitations is my favorite task at RAA, as it allows me to be creative. However, I also need to remain aware of potential issues when I create them. Since differences in language can act as a barrier, complex language is kept to a minimum. Adding small details such as maps can also be helpful for those not familiar with the area.

For World Refugee Day 2021, RAA celebrated at Tree Tops Park. Days before the party, I met with the store manager at Trader Joe’s and arranged to pick up donations for the event. On the day of the party, I delivered the items, helped set up some decorations, and met new families who had recently joined the organization.

Aside from designing the invitation to RAA’s Annual Holiday party this year, I was also the event photographer and performed duties associated with my new role in the Welcome & Gifts Committee. It is a tradition of the non-profit to gift the refugee families with holiday baskets at the party. So the committee met to customize the baskets for each individual in every family.  Donors provided all the items and each basket varied. For example, families with teenagers contained items like headphones and hoodies, while the ones made for younger children had board games and stationery items. We also personalized gift cards from Target and wrapped them to keep ready for the day of the event. The entire process demanded attention to detail and a lot of teamwork. On the day of the event, I delivered 15 baskets and helped set up decorations at the Coral Gables Congregational Church. I also set up my photography equipment, photo props, and a backdrop where guests could have their photographs taken by me.

w h e n

Volunteer hours approved on MyHonors

s u m m a r y

Working alongside the families and learning of their experiences motivates me to continue volunteering my time at the Refugee Assistance Alliance. The organization dedicates extensive efforts to cultivating a supportive refugee community in South Florida which I find commendable. Additionally, many of the leaders are women I’d describe as pillars of the community. I’m grateful to learn from a group of people who deeply value education, integrity, and advocacy.

In February 2020, the non-profit hosted a movie screening of the documentary This is Home: A Refugee Story. There I learned how refugees must travel dangerously to escape oppression and the limited resources available to them once they are in a safer environment. A few months later, my World Regional Geography class required a semester project for which I chose the Sundarbans in Bangladesh. My project featured how natural disasters displaced individuals and described how neighboring countries rejected them. Since my volunteer work at RAA began, I’ve learned so much about the violation of human rights and what seeking refuge entails, which is why I’ll continue devoting time to this type of service work.

c i t a t i o n s

“Advocacy.” The UN Refugee Agency. 25 Nov. 2021,

https://www.unhcr.org/en-us/advocacy.html

Stahl, Leslie. “ The IRC & Sesame Workshop. 17 Nov. 2019,

https://www.cbsnews.com/news/sesame-street-international-rescue-committee-help-syria-refugee-children-60-minutes-2019-11-17/

This is Home: A Refugee Story. Directed by Alexander Shiva, Gidalya Pictures, 2018.

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