The History of RWP

Hmong peopleIn 2000, Dr. Jessica Goodkind and Hmong refugee community members in Lansing, Michigan developed the Refugee Well-being Project (RWP) which was the subject of Dr. Goodkind's dissertation. The first year included 28 Hmong adults and 27 undergraduate students. The project was a resounding success both practically and in terms of research.

When Jessica returned to her hometown of Albuquerque, NM in 2004, she met with many refugee resettlement agency staff and community members to discuss implementing RWP in Albuquerque. In 2006, Jessica and Ann Githinji began RWP with African refugees from Liberia, Eritrea, and the Great Lakes Region of Africa (Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Republic of Congo and Rwanda).

Since 2006, over 175 UNM students and 100 refugee families have completed the program. Our students have gone on to serve in the Peace Corps, complete graduate school or enter other professions that work on similar issues.

  • Afghani menFrom 2006-2008 RWP focused on African refugees
  • From 2009-2010, RWP focused on Iraqi refugees
  • From 2011-2012, it included both African and Iraqi refugees
  • From 2013 to present, RWP includes refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan and the Great Lakes Region of Africa (DRC, Burundi, Rwanda and Republic of Congo)

Impacts on refugee adults

"Definitely we learn a lot during this program.  We learn about the U.S. cultures and traditions and believe they learned the same things about our culture.  I believe we can say that this program helped us to build trust all together.  We feel we are much, much more comfortable now when they approach us and we feel we are no longer lost."

- Adult Iraqi participant

  • Refugee adults in RWP have shown reduced psychological distress and increased access to community resources
  • Adults have also expressed that they feel safer in American society after going through RWP.
  • Directly, adults have been assisted in finding educational opportunities and gainful employment.
  • Our program is flexible and meets refugees where they are at. This is extremely important when working with refugee families because many refugee adults were highly educated professionals with significant contact with American culture. Whereas, others may not have had any past experience with modern amenities or formal education. Our student-advocates have worked with refugee doctors and helped them get accreditation in the U.S. and re-enter their professional field. Others have focused on learning English and accessing childcare opportunities to pursue education.

Impacts on refugee children

When I was in Africa, I couldn’t even read Kirundi. But my sister could read Kirundi, and I would tell her, 'Please teach me how to read,' and she wouldn’t even show me how to read. So when I was coming here and we were filling out the form I knew that I lied that I could read and then my heart was really, my conscience was really bothering me because I knew I couldn’t read. In the beginning of the Learning Circles I was working with Sarah and then we changed over to you, and I really like you and I now can read and write."

- Burundian child participant

Refugee childrenRefugee children are expected to continue school at the education level as their American peers regardless of their past experience with formal education. Secondly, they are expected to learn English at a much faster rate than their parents. As a result, many struggle to grasp concepts in school. UNM student advocates provide an extra source of tutoring and also help refugee children get access to other school resources that are hard for them to access.

Children also learn to appreciate the cultures in which they come from. Learning circles involve children in the discussion which teaches them that they also have valuable contributions to make. In the process, they also learn that their parents have a wealth of experience that is sometimes not recognized because of their low English proficiency level.

Impacts on American student-advocates

“I think I’ve learned more about the value of money and my own personal spending habits. Like I quit my job halfway through the semester to have more time to devote to this project and to my schoolwork because I really realized that I don’t need to spend as much as I normally do and I can live with a lot less and I take the bus and stuff. I mean it just makes you aware of how blessed I was and that I don’t want to take advantage of that because I want to help other people.”

-UNM student-advocate

Program participantsAmerican students have learned invaluable lessons relating to privilege, social inequities and a desire to make positive sustainable changes. Many students continue to be friends with their refugee partners and some even go on to work for local refugee service agencies.

Students also learn important teaching skills and valuable cultural knowledge that leads to cross-cultural understanding and, ultimately, contribute to larger peace-building.

Impacts on the larger community

As a result of the RWP, community organizations have become more responsive to refugee needs. Some organizations have begun to allocate more resources to helping refugee families such as offering refugee-specific English courses that are culturally competent.

Student advocates have also served an important role in supporting public school teachers who may not have the socio-historical background information for some of their students.

Various participants in RWP have founded their own organizations that provide more assistance to their communities. The Association of Burundian Americans in New Mexico was founded by past participants in RWP. Additionally, the United Voices for Refugee Rights, a community led organization that advocates for refugee rights, was a direct result of a Learning Circle topic on the history of refugees in the U.S.