Honors student starts club to assist refugees in Richmond, raise awareness
By William Lineberry
University College & Honors College
Vineeth Vaidyula knows how difficult it can be for individuals and families who are resettling in the U.S.
The son of immigrants, Vaidyula has seen firsthand through his volunteer work in the Richmond community that resettling in a new country can be one of the most challenging things any person or family can endure.
Resettlement – adjusting to an entirely new place, system and life – is not something that takes 90 days (the point at which funding often runs out from the U.S. government), he said. It is a long and complicated process that can last a lifetime.
To help with the process of resettlement, volunteers can assist refugees in navigating confusing institutional structures such as health care, benefits and education. And that is why Vaidyula chose to start Students Together Assisting Refugees (STAR), a new student club on Virginia Commonwealth University's campus.
“The entire resettlement process for migrants can be really difficult and limiting through [poor] social determinants of health,” said Vaidyula, a sophomore majoring in biology in the College of Humanities and Sciences and in the Honors College Guaranteed Admission Program for Medicine. “I founded STAR to help close that gap by getting VCU students involved. Resettlement is a group effort. Change is a group effort.”
What it means to be a refugee
The goal of the organization is twofold, Vaidyula said. He wants to aid Richmond-area refugees by connecting them with student volunteers and student-made resources. But he also wants to raise awareness among his VCU peers about what it means to be a refugee in Richmond and beyond.
“Richmond is a migrant and refugee hot spot,” Vaidyula said. “Through volunteerism, and through conversations, we want VCU students to gain a better understanding of this local population of people that are often very underserved and falling through the cracks.”
Through volunteerism, and through conversations, we want VCU students to gain a better understanding of this local population of people that are often very underserved and falling through the cracks.
The organization has two projects in the works, Vaidyula said. The first one, called the Richmond Refugee Resource Project, is looking for volunteers to compile lists of free education, health care and citizenship resources, translate and develop accessible videos around those lists and distribute them to community partners.
The second project, which is in partnership with a local humanitarian organization, involves a cohort of 15 to 30 volunteers, including undergraduate pre-health students and medical students, working to address the unmet health care advocacy needs of resettling clients. Applications for the summer cohort will open in April.
STAR will also host visual exhibits, cultural immersion events and a book club to demonstrate, through art, experience and literature, what the life and journey of a refugee is like, Vaidyula said.
Leveling the intersection
The ability to connect his interests in health, advocacy and biomedical science was made possible by the Honors College’s city-as-a-text curriculum and faculty, Vaidyula said.
“The Honors College, through its courses of intention and faculty, has really helped me level that intersection between social advocacy, biomedical science and my passion for humanity,” Vaidyula said. “I don’t think that if I [went] to a different school that I would have had this experience. I’m really grateful for VCU giving me that pathway and education to help me figure out what I was passionate about and to see it clearly.”
To learn more about STAR, interested students can search for the club on RamsConnect and connect on Instagram at STAR@VCU. The organization’s first general body meeting is scheduled for March 15 at 5 p.m. in Virginia Room B of the Student Commons.