Community Schools / Kids

Columbia High Students Aid Syrian Refugees With Tutoring & So Much More

A group of Columbia High School students has been making the difference for Syrian refugee families in our area.

The story begins with CHS juniors Talia White and Hanna Cox being connected with two Syrian American women through White’s contacts at Temple Sharey-Tefilo Israel in South Orange.

The two Syrian American women, Huda and Wafa, “knew many families in Roselle who have just arrived in the U.S. and have children, all with no or very limited English skills,” said Cox. “Through Huda and Wafa, Talia and I were able to meet the families and tutor them every Saturday at the Roselle Library.”

There were so many children (around 24) and parents who needed tutoring that Cox and White created a tutoring program — the new CHS club Teens For Refugees — to recruit more tutors.

“After about two sessions with just Talia and me, and my dad and her mom, as tutors, we decided that we needed to make this a club at CHS so that we could recruit more tutors. And so we have, and for the past few months we’ve had students from CHS come to Roselle to tutor with us.”

Now, the program has grown beyond tutoring.

White’s mother Carrie recently hosted a dinner with one of the Syrian families. “It was lovely,” said Cox, “there was so much Syrian food and the Syrian family that cohosted it was very pleased with it as well.”

White and Cox are also hosting a hygiene product drive at CHS for the refugees (donations can be dropped off at Columbia High School where there is a box for Teens For Refugees), and will be speaking at the Ethical Culture Society in Maplewood on February 26 about Teens For Refugees.

“The best way for people to help these families is to come to the tutoring sessions at the Roselle Library,” said White, “or donate a variety of things to the families. Many families are in need of winter clothes, basic clothes, school supplies, and so many other items. They come here with nothing and receive very little money from the government so they do not have a lot of extra money to buy products for themselves.”

As White and Cox continue with their program, they have inspired others.

Kambiz Roghanchi, also a junior at CHS, heard about Teens For Refugees but couldn’t help on Saturdays because he attends school at his mosque that day. Instead, he basically adopted one Syrian refugee family.

“For the past month and a half I’ve been helping a Syrian refugee family. It started with a flyer at CHS that wanted teens to tutor Syrian refugees in English,” said Roghanchi.

Kambiz Roghanchi
Kambiz Roghanchi

“The problem was I attend my mosque on Saturdays for weekend school. But I still wanted to help so I gave the organizers my number,” said Roghanchi. “And a week later they got back to me with a family that needed someone to come to their house, so I said yes right away. I really wanted to help, as a fellow Muslim to them, and as a human being in general. It was a dad, mom and 13-month-old boy named Ibrahim. We started with English and now I’ve helped them find many things they need. Sometime I go to their mosque with them. They came over to my house for dinner one day and they loved it!”

Roghanchi’s advocacy for the family has blossomed into procuring needed items for the family and helping the father find work.

“I was their first American friend,” said Roghanchi. “So one day I was at their house and the mom — both parents speak extremely limited English — had a sheet of charities to call, with a diaper drive circled. So I called for them and no answer and I asked if they needed diapers. They said yes. I called my mom and she got a pack and brought it right over to their apartment in Elizabeth. From there I asked our community for diapers through Swap SOMa Lounge [a South Orange-Maplewood closed group on Facebook]. The response was amazing.”

Talia White and Hanna Cox
Talia White and Hanna Cox

“So many people in this community are amazing.” said Roghanchi, “They now have enough diapers to last a year.”

Donations kept pouring in: clothes for the baby (he now has a full wardrobe), winter coats and shoes for the parents, even a laptop.

“They were so happy — the look on their faces made me almost cry with joy…. SOMA was so generous!”

It hasn’t all been smiles, said Roghanchi: “There have been some hard times with translation. And stories about life in Aleppo.”

But the work goes on.

Roghanchi is now working with a local rabbi to provide more aid to the family. And he’s trying to help the father find a job: “He has a degree in economics and his area of expertise is in accounting. He is looking for anything that he can get to and that pays… working at a halal restaurant. A store…. anything. His english is very, very limited.”

To help the family, you can find Roghanchi on Facebook or reach him via email here.

Since White, Cox and Roghanchi first contacted Village Green about this story, Kambiz has been emailing almost daily to ask when the story would be published because he’s anxious to show “the amazing generosity of people here in Maplewood and South Orange and how much of a difference it made for one family.”

Research/reporting for this article was supported in part through an immigration reporting grant from the Center for Cooperative Media, Montclair State University, and is part of “In the Shadow of Liberty,” a year-long look at immigration in New Jersey.

Click on photos to enlarge: 

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