The Refugee Empowerment Program

“To empower refugees and immigrants in Memphis, TN by offering high-quality, tailored programming that encourages, educates, and equips individuals, families, and the community.” This is the mission statement of the Refugee Empowerment Program, or REP, which I’ve been working with for my senior project. This program has worked diligently to fulfill their mission.

One student described REP this way: “It’s a wonderful after-school program (except for during COVID). It helps you build courage inside of you. It makes you want to be brave and try new things. And most importantly it makes you want to become a better person.”

The Refugee Empowerment Program started with Ruth Lomo. She came to resettle in Memphis as a Sudanese refugee in 2001. After arriving here, she was faced with a dilemma. She needed her children to learn English and become accustomed to living America, but she could not help them herself since she was just as lost as they were. Her children were sent home from school with English worksheets that they were barely able to finish because their mother was unable to help them.

Fortunately, Ruth was able to find college students and members of her church who were able to help both her and her children overcome their language barriers. Because of her experience, Ruth decided she wanted to create a program to help refugees in Memphis who needed to adjust to living in a new country.

Twenty years later, Ruth is the founder of the Refugee Empowerment Program and is known as Mama Ruth. As her program has grown, more people have become involved. One of these people is Jesika Davidson, a Memphis native who has worked at REP for about four years. Her work began as a one-year volunteer sprint to create a literacy program for one of her college classes. When it was time for her to leave, she asked to stay, saying, “This is where I feel I’m supposed to be.” She had fallen in love with the program and felt like she had just begun helping the people around her. Jesika is known to walk around helping wherever and whomever she can, students, adults, and staff alike.

When I volunteered at REP last semester, it looked different than it usually would. As the students said, it is usually an after-school program. However, due to COVID-19, REP has become a pop-up school for any of their students who need a place to learn while attending classes virtually. It was my job to go from desk to desk trying to keep students on task or help them navigate softwares. While I adored the kids and enjoyed interacting with them, I was shocked by their lack of resources. On my first day volunteering, we had a lack of pencils. The second day was met with a shortage of paper. The class I was with at one point was rotating the usage of different items to ensure everyone had a chance to use them. It broke my heart to see such disparity between the situation of the kids there and the students at my high school.

It was this experience that inspired my senior project. I am collecting school supplies from different churches in the Memphis area. I will then give those supplies to REP for their students. I’m also writing articles that I intend to publish in newspapers with the hope of bringing more attention to REP’s mission. If you would like to help REP, visit repmemphis.org to donate, volunteer, or reach out to find other ways you can help.

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