All of the ASTEP programs I’ve worked for are truly remarkable, but the Refugee Youth Summer Academy (RYSA) holds a special place in my heart. Each summer, ASTEP volunteer artists partner with the International Rescue Committee and a team of New York City teachers to create a unique summer-school experience for recently-arrived refugee youth.
The goal on paper is clear and direct: strengthen language-skills and self-confidence, and prepare these youth for schooling in the United States. On the ground, however, things are far less cut-and-dry, and far more surprising and wonderful.
With refugees and asylees representing dozens of countries around the world, the teachers end up learning about as much as the students! A group of Nepalese boys performed traditional songs for us from Nepal, a young man from Sierra Leone gave me a chilling history of the diamond trade that no Hollywood film could ever match, and I was taught to count to ten in Japanese.
In return, these students learned about painters like Monet and Rothko and the movements in art they represented, they were introduced to break-dancing and Judo, and they created original poems and dances that told of their journies to the U.S., the challenges they were facing here, or simply the joy they felt at being able to work together and create. And, yes, English skills were improved – through telling stories in Drama class, learning lyrics in Music or simply via casual conversations out in the hallway.
But, it struck me one day as I watched an older boy from Guinea help a younger Tibetan girl with her still-life painting in Art class—that what we do at RYSA goes beyond preparing students for school. We create a safe space that, after six weeks, these students come to think of as home. That sense of belonging, I think, for kids who’ve only just gotten to this country, is truly a gift of immeasurable value.
– Alejandro Rodriguez, ASTEP Volunteer Artist
+ Visit Get Involved to learn about becoming an ASTEP Volunteer Artist!