USC students teach English to refugees

Every other Sunday, Sofia Deak, a senior studying international relations and global business, wakes up early and makes the two-hour drive to San Diego with a team of 35 tutors to teach English to Syrian refugees. As president of Students Organize 4 Syria at USC, Deak coordinates these biweekly tutoring sessions as well as donation drives.

The students in the club arrive in San Diego for their first day of tutoring. Photo courtesy of Sofia Deak.

“We train anyone who joins in ESL [English as a Second Language] tutoring,” Deak said. “[Students] get to work with people they have almost nothing in common with and form connections. The refugee community is one of the most welcoming communities of people I have ever met.”

Most sessions last one to two hours, and each session is built around the specific goals of the student being taught. Deak tutors a mother of four who already attends ESL classes twice a day and is primarily focused on learning how to read.

“It is a judgement-free zone [when we are teaching],” Deak said. “We also socialize, share food and exchange pictures of our families.”

Some students have been inspired to get involved with Students Organize 4 Syria by their personal backgrounds.

Asem Alahmad, a senior majoring in business administration, is a Syrian American. Alahmad, who believes teaching English and literacy skills is an important humanitarian effort, reached out to Deak last semester and started helping with the club.

To Alahmad, the impact of the club on refugee lives has started to become more evident.

“I can see the change happening before my very eyes,” Alahmad said. “We have gotten amazing feedback and seen families no longer need translators because of their level of improvement in the English language.”

Other students have become involved with Students Organize 4 Syria to gain more awareness about the worldwide refugee crisis.

“In the media, Syrian refugees are often talked about in very abstract terms, by their critics and supporters alike,” said Aziza Kasumov, a senior majoring in print and digital journalism and international relations and current tutor of a family of five. “I wanted to get an idea of who these people are for myself.”

Kasumov and her teaching partner help the father of the family they teach by preparing him for college and helping him complete various legal forms. When not learning English, the father works long hours at his job and the wife assists other refugees in the community.

“Despite their circumstances, they’ve been incredibly welcoming and thankful whenever we stop by for tutoring, offering us Syrian sweets and homemade baked goods,” Kasumov said. “They deserve to be here, not to be stigmatized and alienated.”

The wait list for tutoring contains over 30 refugees seeking to learn. If you are interested in joining Students Organize 4 Refugees, email