Refugees taking US college courses from migrant encampments in Africa, Mexican border

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Migrant students in Malawi who took free U.S. college courses offered through the nonprofit Refugee Outreach Collective show their completion certificates. A new course is starting on Humanitarianism offered through Northern Michigan University that the group is recruiting from migrant refugees living in Reynosa, Mexico. (Courtesy Photo)

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HIDALGO, Texas (Border Report) — Despite a lack of electricity, supply of water and other basic amenities, several migrants have managed to complete a U.S. college business course while living in tent encampments on the northern Mexican border.

Refugee Outreach Collective (ROC) recruited the migrants, and leaders with the nonprofit are now in Reynosa, Mexico, trying to find more adult migrants to take another course being offered to them for free while they live in a swelling encampment in that crime-ridden and dangerous border city.

Emily Worline is executive director of the nonprofit Michigan-based Refugee Outreach Collective. (Courtesy Photo)

Border Report spoke via phone with ROC Executive Director Emily Worline, who was at the refugee tent encampment on Monday in Reynosa, across the Rio Grande from McAllen, Texas. She had just learned that her organization has been authorized to start recruiting for a new course, Humanitarianism in Theory and Practice, that is to be offered by a professor at Northern Michigan University. And she said she was thrilled at the prospect of finding 30 student refugees to fill the class

“We’re gong to do our best to recruit those people for this class,” Worline said. “Mostly from those living in Reynosa.”

On Friday, seven refugee migrant students affiliated with ROC finished their first course that a professor offered online from Central Michigan University’s Lansing campus.

Migrants are seen May 3, 2021, living in a tent encampment in Reynosa, Mexico, south of McAllen, Texas. The camp now has 700 migrants, most expelled from South Texas under Title 42 travel restrictions. Nonprofits like the Sidewalk School for Children Asylum Seekers are helping to clothe, feed and meet their needs. (Courtesy Photo)

The class had started with 15 refugee students, all who were teachers with nonprofit Sidewalk School for Children Asylum Seekers, teaching students in the filthy encampment in the border town of Matamoros, Mexico, across the river from Brownsville, Texas. All of the teachers also were refugees waiting to claim asylum in the United States but had been sent back to wait in Mexico under the Trump administration’s Migrant Protection Protocols program.

But after President Joe Biden took office, nearly 1,000 people from the camp and surrounding area were allowed to legally cross into the United States. That included all but two of the teachers from the Sidewalk School. Once they crossed, then eight of them did not finish the course, Sidewalk School Co-Director Felicia Rangel-Samponaro told Border Report.

Nevertheless, she said it was a wonderful partnership that gave her teachers experience taking an American college course, and more importantly, she said, it gave them more of a purpose as they waited in Matamoros, some for up to two years.

“I asked my staff about what they thought about taking a college course, and everybody said they wanted to go back to school,” Rangel-Samponaro said. “So we worked out some kinks and it happened.”

Felicia Rangel-Samponaro is co-director of the nonprofit Sidewalk School for Children Asylum Seekers. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

The kinks and logistics took months to iron out. This included a complete Spanish-language translation of the course and study material, and getting a weekly interpreter to take part in the course. But in January, the International Business Relations course was launched and all were doing well. That was until the camp disbanded.

“When the encampment closed and 17 staff members crossed, it was a huge change,” she said. “But they all took the midterm. They all passed. She said everyone did great.”

The course is not accredited, but Rangel-Samponaro believes the real-world experience of taking a U.S. higher-education class and having shown the initiative to study even while living in a refugee camp will look good on their asylum applications.

Rangel-Samponaro calls their ability to take such a course and to pass it a victory, especially given their situation.

Migrant refugees are seen on Jan. 28, 2020, living in a tent encampment on the banks of the Rio Grande in Matamoros, Mexico. (Border Report File Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

The Sidewalk School provided the tablet computers and study material, and the university allowed them free tuition. Their classmates were U.S. students, and although they paid for the course, they also benefited from the weekly Zoom chats in which they learned about what life was like living in a refugee camp on the border, Worline said.

The coronavirus pandemic has changed the way many learn, and she said it opened up an opportunity to impress upon academic institutions that refugees in other countries can be part of this academic equation, as well.

“Really, at the end of the day, all people need is simple access to the internet,” she said. “And we can expand their access to universities.”

This is a model she has been perfecting since ROC a year ago began offering its first courses to refugees in Dzaleka, Malawi, in southeastern Africa.

Students living in a refugee camp in Dzaleka, Malawi, in southeastern Africa have for the past year taken free college courses affiliated with Michigan-based universities through the Refugee Outreach Collective, a nonprofit organization. (Courtesy Photo)

Currently there are 12 migrant students in Dzaleka who are taking a course. In June, a new class will explore the European Union, Worline said.

ROC and the Sidewalk School are not affiliated, but Rangel-Samponaro said she would help Worline to earmark potential recruits for the upcoming Humanitarianism class. And Worline said she would take back what she has learned these past two weeks visiting the border in Reynosa to her organization’s 25-member executive board, in the hopes that they open up more courses and more spots for migrant students in the future.

“Classes are online and could happen anywhere. They can attend lectures and be a part of college,” Worline said. “So hopefully we’ll get more signed up.”

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