Human Rights Conference inspires students to volunteer


Two Webster students, Neha Purswaney and Addi Rios began volunteering for Welcome Neighbor STL after professor Lindsey Kingston introduced them to the organization.

On Wednesday Oct. 9, Professor Lindsey Kingston speaks at Webster’s annual Human Rights Conference. The 2019 conference covered issues faced by immigrants and featured discussions led by professors, anthropologists and volunteers.

For two Webster students, the annual Human Rights Conference was more than two days of important discussions: It was their introduction into valuable volunteer experience that they do not plan to stop anytime soon.

On Wednesday, Oct. 9, and Thursday, Oct. 10, Webster hosted seven sessions of talks on human rights led by professors, anthropologists and volunteer organizers for the 2019 conference, titled “Global Migration.” During the third session on Wednesday, a roundtable discussion featured immigrants to St. Louis and Saint Louis Teens Aid Refugees Today (START) founders Luke Braby and Adam Saleh.

Braby and Saleh, both seniors at Saint Louis Priory School, founded START in June 2018 to help recent immigrant families integrate into the St. Louis community as they “start” new lives in the area. Since its founding, START has partnered with local immigrant resource, Welcome Neighbor STL.

According to Webster director of human rights, associate professor of International Human Rights Lindsey Kingston, Saleh became interested in the issues faced by immigrants after talking to a man selling baklava outside his mosque.

“The man didn’t have access to a job and was trying to make money for his family,” Kingston said.

Recent cuts to refugee resettlement funds have caused a shortage of resources for many recent migrants to the St. Louis region, Kingston said. Everything from finding safe and affordable housing to navigating a job search becomes a challenge when someone does not understand enough English to get by in the U.S., Kingston said.

Webster student Addi Rios said she found Braby and Saleh’s discussion with immigrants inspiring. 

“I think it’s so awesome that two high schoolers have enough initiative to just go out and start this program,” Rios said. “I think the whole program is really awesome.”

Rios began volunteering for START’s partner, Welcome Neighbor STL, after being introduced to the program in Kingston’s class, “Advanced Topics in Human Rights: Global Migration.” Kingston teaches her students by using the class to produce produce the Human Rights Conference. JUMP According to Rios, Kingston’s class took a field trip to Welcome Neighbor STL’s facilities, where she met three refugee women from Syria. After the field trip, she knew she wanted to do more.

On Saturday, Oct. 12, she volunteered for the Welcome Neighbor STL’s Supper Club, an organization that allows recent immigrants to share unique cooking skills with volunteers and fundraisers.

Rios said her volunteer work with Welcome Neighbor STL will not stop there, however.  Next week, she will begin volunteering as an English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher with a family who recently immigrated to St. Louis from Syria. Rios will volunteer with Faiga, a recent emigrant from Syria, and her five sons starting Oct. 24.

Rios, an International Human Rights and Legal Studies double major, said she felt a personal connection to the work that Welcome Neighbor STL and START do. She came to the United States from Mexico when she was 8 years old. When she first came to the U.S., she took ESL classes to prepare herself for life in American society.

“I feel like I understand more than most people how to learn English as a second language because I did that myself,” Rios said.

Additionally, Rios taught several members of her extended family how to speak English when they came to the U.S. She said she and her mother, who spoke fluent English, helped her aunts and uncles in situations like doctors’ appointments and signing leases, which prepared her for her volunteer work with people like Faiga. Volunteers for Welcome Neighbor STL do everything from driving recent immigrants to dentist appointments to helping them read their mail, Rios said.

“[My mother] thinks it’s awesome that there’s even a program that helps immigrants and refugees like that,” Rios said. “There was nothing like that when she was helping my aunts and uncles learn English. She loves it.”

Webster Leiden student Neha Purswaney, who currently studies abroad at the Webster Groves campus, will accompany Rios on Oct. 24, when she plans to volunteer with Faiga’s five sons. Purswaney also found Kingston’s “Topics in Human Rights: Global Migration” class inspiring.

Purswaney said while she also found Braby and Saleh’s work inspiring, she originally thought her short stay in the U.S. would keep her from volunteering with START and Welcome Neighbor STL. However, when she saw the work that volunteers planned to do, she said she felt like she had to get involved.

Faiga’s children, who are elementary school-aged, will receive help with homework and English from Purswaney when the two volunteers meet the family.

Purswaney, who came to the U.S. for the first time in May, said she can identify with some of the issues recent immigrants face. While she may not be fleeing a war zone, she said she understands the culture shock of being immersed in American culture.

“There’s all kinds of little things,” Purswaney said. “For instance, riding a bike is way more dangerous here.”

While Purswaney said she can understand the culture shock, she can only imagine the horror of leaving a war-torn country like Syria.

“It’s really disheartening to see things happening on the world scale and feel like there’s nothing we can do about it,” Purswaney said. “But this is an opportunity. This is something everyone can do.”

Purswaney said if someone speaks English and is willing, volunteering as an ESL teacher is in high demand in St. Louis.

While Purswaney will return to Leiden in the spring, Rios said she plans on working with recent immigrants in St. Louis long term. She plans to go to law school, where she will focus on international human rights.

“Working with immigrants and refugees, even the basics of learning English, is something I’m interested in the long term,” Rios said.

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