BYU club helps students find refugee service opportunities


It’s been nearly a year since LDS Church leaders encouraged members to assist refugees, and leaders of a new BYU club are doing their part to match students with opportunities to serve those fleeing war and persecution.

BYU students Norma Villanueva and Rachel McAllister decided they wanted to get involved after hearing the plea for help during the April 2016 LDS General Conference. They started the BYU Refugee Empowerment Club in Fall 2016.

The club educates students about refugee issues and focuses on educating others about how to influence political leaders to make a difference in their communities.

“Within the last year, refugees have been a huge topic on the news and in our church,” said Jessica Farnsworth, the club’s community outreach chair. “It has been really encouraging to see how many people want to help and get involved.”

Students visit booths at the 2017 Hunger Banquet Involvement Fair in the Wilkinson Student Center. The BYU Refugee Empowerment club organized the event and invited many organizations that work with refugees to the fair, according to the club’s founder, Norma Villanueva. (Matt Robinson)

Farnsworth’s parents have shared with her stories of Vietnamese refugees who lived in Utah County during the Vietnam War. Utah has been taking in refugees for decades, according to Farnsworth, but there hasn’t been a lot of publicity about it in the past.

“There is this perception that this is a one-time issue, but refugees aren’t a new thing, so they definitely aren’t going away,” Farnsworth said. “I wish people understood the way people deal with trials is that they move.”

The club provides students with opportunities to meet refugees, learn their cultures and discover how they can help support them.

Each member of the club learned about a specific culture to help educate others about the places of origin of the refugees. They hoped learning about the culture would help students understand how they could better address refugees’ needs. Farnsworth’s experience in the club has encouraged her to see how good people are, both those serving and those being served.

“Refugees are normal people. They have been through so much and they can add so much to our community,” Farnsworth said. “When you serve them, you end up getting more out of it.”

Graduate social work student Mereesa Gilbert has also been with the club since it started. She said she has seen the power of gathering people to make a bigger difference.

She participated in the March for Refugees on Capitol Hill in Salt Lake City with nearly 8,000 other people earlier this semester.

“I as an individual could add my voice to so many others to provide an impact,” Gilbert said.

Matt Robinson
BYU students joined in the March for Refugees on Capitol Hill in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Feb. 4, 2017. Graduate social work student Mereesa Gilbert said she felt she made a difference participating in the march with the nearly 8,000 other people. (Matt Robinson)

There is a lot of work to be done for refugees without making direct contact with them, according to the Refugee Empowerment Club. They focus their efforts on teaching students how they can advocate for refugees — teaching students how to speak with political leaders to make them aware of the refugees’ needs, both in Utah and across the country.

Gilbert said the best way to serve is to first become educated on the issues and ways to help.

“It is hard to help a social problem when you don’t know the issues,” Gilbert said.

She said she urges students to learn how to find truthful information, especially when so much misinformation is available on social media.

Although the club is relatively new, it has worked with other clubs on campus to inform students about refugee issues and opportunities for service. The club welcomes all students to participate in its activities.

The club will be partnering with the BYU’s School of Social Work for its next event titled “Understanding Refugees and Undocumented Immigrants” on Friday, March 24 at 4 p.m. in B092 JSFB.

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