This article originally appeared on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s “Center for Public Service” site.
In 2023, UNC students Divya Patel and co-project lead Grace May received a $10,000 Projects for Peace grant to create a program for Afghan women in Carrboro. To implement this project, they collaborated with Refugee Community Partnership, an organization that provides support to local refugee and immigrant communities. Patel began her involvement with RCP in 2020, when she partnered with a refugee family as part of their Bridge Builders program. Bridge Builders work with their partner family for a year, where they provide tutoring and social support to families, while connecting them to local services and the surrounding community, “becoming like adopted family members for that family,” says Lama M., Community Coordinator Manager and Collective Care Manager at RCP.
The project, Afghan Women’s Group: Using Craft for Social and Emotional Healing for Displaced Women, provides art therapy and community-building for Afghan refugees. “This project has made me realize that I want to continue working in community development and nonprofit work,” says Patel. As a global studies major, Patel is interested in global development, and by working on this project, she discovered how nonprofit organizations can bridge the gap between global development and community development. In the future, she hopes to continue working to bridge the gap between these fields.
Chapel Hill is home to several refugee and immigrant communities, including over 1,200 refugees and immigrants that are members of RCP. Many of these communities have been established in Chapel Hill for several decades; however, there was not an established Afghan community in Chapel Hill until 2021. RCP is a community-led organization and is led by staff who themselves are largely from immigrant and refugee backgrounds. According to Daniella Runyambo, a Co-Executive Director at RCP, “when you ask our refugee and immigrant community ‘what is the one support that you need to make this a home,’ they’ll always tell you it’s community.” As RCP began working with the Afghan community, they sought ways to connect these refugees to each other, other refugee communities, and the larger Chapel Hill community.
Forging a Student-Community Partnership
The Afghan Women’s Group, which RCP plans to incorporate as a permanent program, provides several layers of support for the women participating in it. To ensure all women can participate, regardless of access to transportation, community volunteers pick up the women and bring them to the community center. There is also a childcare component, staffed by RCP members who have a background in childcare; an art therapy facilitator from Afghanistan; and materials imported from Afghanistan. Patel says “Part of the reason we wanted to start this project is to allow them to have a space for social and emotional healing. Embroidery is a part of Afghan culture and using it as part of the project allows the women in the group to connect with each other emotionally and engage in a craft that connects them to home.”
Patel observes that grants like Projects for Peace can lead to much more. She adds, “This project doesn’t end when our report is due — the effects we see will last hopefully for a long time.” Divya and Grace’s partnership with RCP is mutually beneficial. Through collaboration with a trusted community organization, Divya and Grace have insight into the community’s needs and through Divya and Grace’s contribution of time and funds, RCP can serve the Afghan community. RCP has a history of involvement with UNC, including student organizations, student volunteers and partnerships, and they believe student support is an essential part of their work.
Runyambo emphasized that “neighbors supporting neighbors is the way we do things at RCP, and one of our neighbors is the UNC campus.” Students who are interested in working with RCP can join the Bridge Builders program, where they will be matched with a refugee family. Students can also help RCP’s cause by advocating for language justice and supporting community-building efforts.