Two seniors at Colgate University in New York planned to spend their summer implementing a program that utilizes art as a technique for social cohesion among Syrian refugees and Jordanians in Amman, Jordan.

In Jordan, the schools are set up on a “double shift” system with Jordanian students attending school in the morning and Syrian refugee youth attending school in an evening shift. The program was designed to take place during the shift change, to bring these two communities together, and address social tension between the refugee and host community. The two students submitted a grant proposal to the Kathryn W. Davis Foundation, and received news that they had been awarded a Projects for Peace grant to travel to Jordan and implement their designed project during Summer 2020.

Then COVID-19 cancelled their plans. If it had not refugees and asylees in Baton Rouge would not have had the chance to meet Leila Ismaio and Melissa Verbeek.

Ismaio returned to her home in Baton Rouge to wait out the pandemic with her family. Verbeek stayed in close touch from her home in Maryland.

Neither were content to sit and do nothing so they came up with an idea to host a virtual English as a Second Language summer camp for refugees and asylees in Baton Rouge and the surrounding area. With all Projects for Peace Grants potentially delayed until 2021, Ismaio and Verbeek sought out alternative funding from the Peace and Conflict Studies Department at their home institution.

A summer ESL camp was what Mauricio Rincon, the new ESL Director at Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Baton Rouge, had been hoping to implement since January. But the pandemic made all the planning for that camp impossible as Rincon was needed to help with the pandemic crisis response.

When Ismaio and Verbeek approached Catholic Charities regarding their idea of a virtual ESL summer camp for clients in the Louisiana area, it was immediately welcomed. 

They started the initiative, naming it “Education Endures,” and designed it to address the barriers to education faced by refugee and asylee youth. COVID-19 will have a big impact on education and schooling, particularly for vulnerable populations. For those who are new to the United States and learning English, the challenges of technological connections, communication and access to resources are difficult to navigate, especially during the pandemic. Ismaio and Verbeek have tackled the challenges head on and their enthusiasm for helping new arrivals has not waivered, striving to prove that education can endure even during a pandemic. 

Anyone who has prepared a summer camp knows they are intense, but the current effects of COVID-19 have complicated preparations, even for something as a Zoom class. Ismaio and Verbeek worked with Rincon and CCDBR volunteer Lisa Namikas to develop workable approaches and strategies to assist in recruitment and participation. Lists of potential participants were drawn up, and each family was called to assess their English and technological needs. 

In some cases, Wi-Fi was needed, or Wi-Fi had never worked and needed fixing. In other cases electronic devices were not sufficient. If a family of five only had one phone, it was not conducive to spending a few hours a day in online classes.

With funding from the girls’ original grant and some tablets from Catholic Charities, devices were distributed so those who were interested could connect a bit more seamlessly. Ismaio and Verbeek drew up schedules for classes and began forming a curriculum, while consistently meeting with Rincon and Namikas regarding implementation.

They were able to deliver close to 40 educational bundles for the children involved in the camp. The bundles included supplies needed for the camp (such as a whiteboard, notebook, pencils and other materials), and some small treats for the kids. 

There are about 40 children and 10 adults currently enrolled in classes. The live sessions, which are 45 minutes and occur three times a week, are divided by age group as well as English language ability, which helps create a cohesion and brings children at common stages together.

Ismaio and Verbeek had attempted to continue their project’s original vision of community cohesion with their initiative in Louisiana and have united students across cities. These children might not have known each other before are not able to interact and engage with other students, learning English in their own community. 

Education Endures has also attempted to incorporate larger community events and activities that bring families together, to continue focusing on the community cohesion focus of their original project proposal. Volunteers from LSU are also participating to help with programming for children and adults as well and strengthen community involvement.

“Catholic Charities is truly blessed to have a place for this program and these wonderful and talented students,” CCDBR executive director David Aguillard said. “Education Endures has preserved despite all the challenges that have presented themselves during the implementation of this unique virtual program. Catholic Charities had previously identified a growing gap in the educational abilities of refugees and asylee youth, we hope that this program will help students jump ahead in light of COVID-19 limitations and prepare students for the upcoming school year. After so many disappointments and setbacks posed by COVID-19, there are bright spots that can help improve the way we learn and live.”