ASU Armstrong scholars reach out to refugees

It’s sprinkling rain when 20 or so Arizona State University students and alums start unloading boxes of unassembled furniture from a moving truck onto the parking lot of the Serrano Village Apartments.

Suddenly the parking lot fills with children, who seem to come from every direction.

They’re laughing and chattering in a half dozen languages — Arabic, Vietnamese, even Dzongkha, the national language of Bhutan. They all want to help assemble the furniture, which the ASU students are unboxing under the apartment carports.

This complex just off of Interstate 17 in west Phoenix is one the U.S. State Department uses to house Phoenix’s refugee population. The children and their families are at the tail end of grueling journeys, ones that started when they were forced to flee their home countries due to persecution, war or armed conflict.

Most arrived here with no more than what they could carry.

“That’s where we come in,” says Megan O’Connor, executive director of The Welcome to America Project, a Phoenix-based organization that has been giving refugees material assistance and, just as important, a warm welcome since 2001. “We’re here not just to provide furniture, but also a little bit of hope.”

Today, The Welcome to America Project has joined forces with students and alums from the Armstrong Family Foundation, a scholarship program that gives financial assistance and personal support to ASU students who have experienced difficult family circumstances beyond their control.

Some Armstrong scholars were orphans or grew up in foster care. Others live with extended family or attained legal independence early in life.

Not too long ago, one of them, Sepideh Jafarzadeh, was a refugee herself.

“I can understand the amount of pain these people went through and the things they left behind and the sacrifices they made to get here,” Sepideh says as she takes a break from assembling dining room chairs.

“It’s been an emotional morning,” she admits as she watches children play amid the boxes.

Seven years ago Sepideh could have been one of them.

She was a 14-year-old Iranian refugee temporarily housed in Turkey who had just learned she could enter the United States.

A foster home in Arizona provided shelter and security, but it was the Armstrong program that helped her reach her lifelong dream of attending a university.

“Honestly, it was my dream to just sit in a classroom and listen to the teacher and raise my hand,” she says. “Some kids dream about becoming Spiderman. I dreamed about going to a university.” Now Sepideh studies aerospace engineering and Earth and space exploration at the ASU Tempe campus.

When she looks out at the children in the parking lot she says, “I see engineers. I see nurses. I see doctors.”

The goals of The Welcome to America Project align nicely with the values promoted by the Armstrong scholarship, says Amy Armstrong, who invests a lot of time an energy in the program founded by her in-laws, Jim and Jo-Ann Armstrong in 1999. Amy and her husband, Patrick, can often be found laboring alongside students at work projects.

The Armstrong program places great stock in service learning, she says, believing that it strengthens the students’ education. “This is a chance for them to see there is a large refugee population here,” Amy says. “It’s a chance to see that help is not always just a hand-out. It’s also a good opportunity for students to give back to the community, to be put in the giving role.”

Ideally, service to the community will become an important part of their professional lives as well. “Plant the seeds of philanthropy early enough and they will become people who give back for life,” she says.

Split into four teams, the students were given a few hours and a $1,000 budget for each of the two families they were buying furniture for. They were tasked with buying the requisites — dressers, chairs, a kitchen table — but they were also asked to find optional items that would help turn an apartment into a home.Today was also an opportunity for the students to invest time and effort in the refugee families they were serving. That is why, earlier that morning, Amy and Patrick gathered the students at IKEA in Tempe before the store opened.

Frames, area rugs, blankets and pillows, even stuffed animals and toys will be brought to The Welcome to American Project’s warehouse to be distributed to families. Since its founding, the project has provided assistance to more than 2,000 families in the Phoenix community.

It will take all day and into the evening to assemble everything the students bought. But no one seems to mind. They’re in it for long haul.