A Decade of Refugee Partnership
Since 2006, an organization founded by Rice students has been working with Houston’s refugee youth to help them improve their language skills, assimilate into the American educational system, and plan for college and careers.
Called the Partnership for the Advancement and Immersion of Refugees (PAIR), the organization started modestly when three students, Christina Lagos Triantaphyllis ’08, Elaine Chang ’07 and Alex Triantaphyllis ’06, began visiting refugee communities and learning about the resettlement process.
“We were struck by the rich and difficult history they brought along with them,” said Christina. “We met a Congolese refugee who invited us into his apartment and laid out all the challenges his nieces and nephews were facing in American classrooms. We invited him to visit the Rice campus, and when he saw the language resource center, his eyes just lit up.”
Employing considerable organizational, diplomatic and logistical skills, the Rice students were able to host refugees at the resource center during weekend hours. They also set up a tutoring system at area high schools, teaching reading, writing and math. They soon formalized the effort as an official student organization. A key milestone in their growth happened when PAIR won $10,000 as a finalist in a social enterprise competition hosted by the RGK Center for Philanthropy and Community Service.
As the founding students began to graduate, they also began to think of sustaining their organization. “We were definitely thinking big and hoping that the idea would survive and sustain itself,” Christina recalled. So, the students incorporated PAIR into an official 501(c)(3) nonprofit.
Their foresight has more than paid off. With student chapters at Rice and the University of Houston, an executive director and small staff, PAIR now mentors more than 400 young refugees each year. Reflecting Houston’s recent refugee profile, the majority of these students are from Bhutan, Burma, a variety of African countries and Iraq. Its volunteers can be found at HISD schools and community centers during the school week and on Saturday mornings. During the summer months, they hold academic camps at sites throughout Houston.
Josiah Yarbrough ’18, a chemical and biomolecular engineering major, joined PAIR as a freshman and began working with high school students. “The essence of what PAIR seeks to do is to empower these refugee kids we meet with in high schools, middle schools and elementary schools,” Josiah said. “We do that through an academic approach, which is really just helping with the classes that they have,” he said, adding that learning English is usually a big obstacle at first.
While Josiah and his fellow volunteers are reaching hundreds of refugees in Houston, there is ample room for growth. More than 3,000 are enrolled in Houston-area schools and about 1,500 are in grades that PAIR programs serve.
“PAIR hopes to expand and strengthen partnerships and share knowledge about its unique model so that its efforts have a multiplier effect,” Christina said. “It is a shining example of what’s possible when Rice’s passionate students go beyond the hedges to solve complex problems.”
— LYNN GOSNELL