Olivia Kolkana knows what it’s like to be away from home.
She remembers stories her grandmother told about Kolkana’s great-great-grandparents and how they fled poverty in Syria in the early 1900s when Christians were being killed. Coming through Ellis Island in New York City, they settled in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, where they opened a grocery store. Their 11 children were all born in the United States and raised to speak only English – so they would be Americans.
Now Kolkana wants to help other refugees, starting over in Clarkston, Georgia.
She created a new student organization this semester, called “Seek Refuge.” The group is supported by Georgia College’s GIVE Center, which helps volunteers make a difference in communities.
In just a few months, Seek Refuge’s email list has burgeoned to over 100 interested students. This is due, in part, to a book freshmen were required to read this summer, “Outcasts United,” that details the struggles of refugees in Clarkston. About 55 percent of the city’s population is resettled refugees from over 100 ethnic groups worldwide. Refugees started arriving in Clarkston in 1990 and now nearly 50 languages are spoken there.
“These people are being forced to leave their homes. A lot of times, they don’t want to resettle. They want to go back home, but they can’t,” said Kolkana, a liberal studies major from Alpharetta and president of Seek Refuge.
“I wanted to find a way on campus to serve,” she said. “I felt people needed to be educated. People are misinformed on the news. If they had a chance to get fully educated, they’d have a better view of what’s going on with refugees.”
Seek Refuge embodies the Georgia College mission of engaged citizenship and service, said Dr. Amanda Reinke, assistant professor of anthropology and advisor for Seek Refuge. She’s thrilled to work with “enthusiastic and driven” students who volunteer their time helping others.
It took a lot of organizing, paperwork and idea sessions with friends before Seek Refuge could be launched. Kolkana felt students should do more than just sit at meetings, listening to a speaker. She wanted an action club that gives students opportunities to affect the lives of real refugees.
To do this, board members turned to a nonprofit in Clarkston, Friends of Refugees. Students go through mandatory training at the nonprofit, before interacting with refugees. They learn difficulties refugees go through, especially resettling where they don’t speak the same language.
“They wind up in these camps, and they can spend years and years and years there, waiting to be assigned to a country,” Kolkana said. “That’s when their hope starts to fade, and they don’t have anything to live for. It’s just sad. The place they call home is somewhere they can’t go back to.”
Volunteering can be life-changing for students as well as refugees. Seek Refuge members go to Clarkston once a month. They help refugees move into apartments or pull weeds in a community garden. Sometimes they simply hang out. Refugees will ask visitors inside and cook the most crazy-amazing meals” for them, Kolkana said.
Susan McDaniel, director of volunteer engagement for Friends of Refugees, said student volunteers are “overflowing with questions and compassion.” She said she’s impressed with their desire to learn and serve.
Although some might feel uncomfortable interacting with people who don’t speak English – club vice president Ahmed El-Shami said it’s worth the effort.
Like Kolkana, El-Shami also understands the hardships of being displaced. His father escaped to America in the 1970s, fleeing Libya after Muammar al-Qaddafi overthrew the king. His father was part of the first rebellion against Qaddafi.
“You can’t do this kind of work with a negative mindset,” El-Shami said. “Some people are scared because of the differences. I can see where that might be intimidating. But, at the end of the day, everybody’s still a human being. And once you realize that, you get beyond any barriers.”
A unifying factor among refugees in Clarkston has been the game of soccer. The sport breaks language barriers and brings people together. El-Shami, a rhetoric major and history minor, plays soccer on the Georgia College club team and his family operates a soccer complex in Alpharetta. He hopes to host a soccer camp on campus this spring for refugee youth.
“Soccer’s one thing they can all agree on and just play,” El-Shami said. “I love everything about soccer. It’s more than a game, that’s for sure. It unites countries. It brings cities together. It can change lives. It brings back that feeling of being home.”
*** Seek Refuge meets biweekly on Mondays in Arts and Sciences, room 239. You can find them on Instagram and Facebook @SeekRefugeGCSU.