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Alternative spring break: UI students volunteer for Refugee Center

TWIN FALLS — University of Idaho student Alaina Heuring is majoring in international studies, but meeting refugees in Twin Falls is giving her a new perspective.

“It really humanizes the whole statistics we learn in school,” the 21-year-old Boise native said.

Instead of spending her spring break on a beach or with family, Heuring is learning about how refugee resettlement agencies operate and what the integration experience is like for newcomers.

She’s among nine UI students volunteering this week at the College of Southern Idaho Refugee Center through UI’s alternative spring break program.

It’s the second year a UI group has helped out at the center.

Students arrived Saturday night and began service projects Sunday morning. Those included helping students at the Twin Falls School District’s Newcomer Centers at Robert Stuart Middle School and Canyon Ridge High School, doing an art project in a hallway at Lincoln Elementary School, organizing donated items at the Refugee Center, and providing one-on-one tutoring for adult refugees learning English as a second language.

On Monday, a group of children transitioned out of Newcomer Centers into their home school, Reese said. UI students were paired one-on-one with students to help them on their first day.

There’s one question the group’s student leader, 22-year-old Boise native Masen Matthews, has heard a lot this week: Is he getting any class credit for this project? The answer is no.

“We’re strictly here to volunteer, which I think is a really cool thing,” he said.

For Heuring, one highlight of this week was talking with a 20-year-old woman who’s a refugee from Rwanda.

They started chatting in English during an ESL class and “we really bonded within those four hours,” she said. They even found out they like the same music.

After college, Heuring — who graduates in May — plans to take a year off and go to law school with the goal of practicing international law. Her ultimate dream is to work for the United Nations.

For Matthews, it’s his third alternative spring break trip and his second time as a team leader. In previous years, he volunteered to help the homeless population in Atlanta and inmates at a correctional facility.

He said the group has gained an understanding this week of how refugee resettlement agencies operate, where they receive funding and “the political back and forth.”

“We’ve learned about really specific aspects of the refugee intake process,” Matthews said.

He’s studying sociology at UI and said this trip is special because he’s interacting with the populations he has studied.

On Wednesday afternoon, UI students were split into two groups to volunteer. One helped in a classroom at Lincoln Elementary, while another worked on a project to create artwork on a wall near the Newcomer Center classrooms.

Matthews traced the word “Sudan” onto a wall, using an image displayed using a projector.

He also traced an outline of the country’s shape, the word for “hello” and the name of the country’s native language.

Students planned to do that for every major country where the CSI Refugee Center receives newcomers. They also planned to write “Welcome” in multiple languages along one wall.

Besides volunteering, students also had a chance to do some sightseeing this week, such as visiting Shoshone Falls and Miracle Hot Springs near Hagerman.

Once the trip ends, students will head back to classes in Moscow.

Matthews said he plans to spread awareness about refugees and fight back against stigmas associated with resettlement.

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