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Jiran is Middlebury College’s intensive summer language program that pairs intermediate and advanced language students with underserved newcomer families who speak their target language. “Jiran” means “neighbors” in Arabic, and the goals of the program are twofold. First, Jiran helps university-level language students improve their linguistic and intercultural competence while learning about US immigration and refugee resettlement. Secondly, Jiran helps bridge resource gaps and supports recently arrived families as they build connections in their new communities. Jiran has historically been an Arabic language program but is now exploring expanding the model to more languages.

In this Article:

  1. Purpose for the Program
  2. Key to the Success of the Program
  3. Key Actors and Participants
  4. Impact and Outcomes
  5. Implementation Steps
  6. Challenges Faced
  7. Resources and Partnerships
  8. Looking to the Future
  9. Contact and Additional Resources

1. Purpose for the Program

Jiran works with refugee and newcomer families who are experiencing what we call “second stage” challenges of resettlement that become particularly acute after the initial 90 days when organized support trickles off. These are challenges like language acquisition, transportation, housing, and social isolation. Our proposition is that universities and colleges can play a unique role in addressing these “second stage” challenges by viewing these challenges as opportunities to provide their students with life-changing intercultural and experiential learning opportunities right here in the United States. 

Jiran takes this approach by pairing university-level language with refugee and newcomer families for a summer of reciprocal learning; the university students are part of an immersive language program that is focused on working to address families’ needs in their new communities. This approach levels the playing field because it explicitly recognizes the expertise that both groups can offer one another; the students are experts in certain aspects of the US culture and systems, and the families are experts in the languages and cultures that the students are studying. 

Jiran has historically been focused on the Arabic language, but the model could be used for almost any target language. Jiran is a unique study abroad-like program in which students can learn their target language in an immersion environment here in the US while also learning about the refugee resettlement system up close. The model has become particularly important to language learners as global events have made it more difficult to study critical languages abroad. Through their work with local families, student participants also gain deeper insight into the challenges that newcomers face after arrival or resettlement.

2. Key to the Success of the Program

Higher education institutions across the country seek to provide an educational experience that encourages their students to be global citizens, critical thinkers, and effective advocates. It is hard to overstate the extent to which participating in Jiran contributes to these goals. Our student participants are actively learning a language, but they are also gaining first-hand knowledge of the maze of US social assistance programs as they work with families to do things like apply for food stamps; they are becoming educated about and exposed to our national immigration system as they teach citizenship exam preparation classes; they are becoming creative problem solvers as they support families to identify non-traditional paths to achieve their goals.

Jiran provides opportunities that challenge students to think both globally and locally by intentionally moving away from a conception of service learning as one-way “helping.” Jiran models a different paradigm in which both students and newcomer families are “in service” to each other, and the higher education institution acts as the convener.

Jiran’s approach ends up empowering both participating students and participating families because it provides space for these groups to shape the program together. Jiran undergoes an annual customization process to ensure that its programming is responding to the needs of its students and the newcomer communities it serves. At the beginning of each summer, participants (both students and families) are invited to shape the program as they see fit, following Jiran’s guiding principles:

  1. We believe that Jiran (جيران) students and families have valuable linguistic and cultural knowledge to share.
  2. We believe that our students and families can change each others’ lives.
  3. We believe in the power of personal relationships.

3. Key Actors and Participants

All newcomer families who speak the target language are eligible to participate in Jiran; they do not have to be refugees, and Jiran routinely works with asylum-seekers and immigrants as well as refugees. 

Participants: Intermediate and advanced college/university language students are eligible to participate in the program. We have also had participants who are graduate students or young professionals interested in migration who are learning the language on their own. 

Interns: Jiran has an internship program that retains bilingual first-generation US high-school students as program interns. The interns utilize their language skills for the benefit of their community and support college participants while gaining work experience. 

Staff: The Jiran staff are from the local community, and Middlebury College employs these field staff over the summer. Middlebury College’s Center for Community Engagement and School in Jordan both provide administration, program design, and program supervision support to the program’s cofounders and staff. This includes an annual customization of the program to respond to emerging needs in the local community.

Jiran has forged strong relationships with the local school system, government, NGOs, religious organizations, and higher education institutions in its areas of operation. These partnerships allow the program to conduct outreach rapidly, connect families to local resources quickly, and host summer programming in public spaces that become well-known to newcomer families as they participate in the program. The partners, meanwhile, become connected to groups within the local community with whom they previously had little or no contact. 

5. Impact and Outcomes

Jiran is designed to act as a springboard for families, helping them bridge the resource gaps they experience upon arrival–particularly after official support mechanisms, like resettlement assistance, are gone. The overall goal, and our greatest area of success, is supporting families to develop ties to individuals and institutions in their new home so that they can more confidently find and access the tools they need to pursue the lives they want to lead in the US. 

The impact that Jiran has on the student participants has been striking. Student participants make significant strides in their linguistic proficiency, and the experience has informed many of their career choices. Past Jiran students have gone on to become federal refugee resettlement officers, assistants to UN Rapporteurs on Human Rights, immigration lawyers, diversity specialists, social workers specialized in refugee counseling, and professional translators. 

Jiran interns have expressed that their participation in the program has helped them determine their post-secondary goals. As first-generation US high school students, Jiran interns’ experience engaging with college students has helped inform their future educational and career choices. 

Jiran has also strengthened diversity and inclusion in its local partner institutions by providing cultural training that has helped local institutions reach, employ, and better serve underserved newcomer communities. Jiran has worked closely with local institutions to tweak programming and policies that better enable partner institutions to include newcomer communities in their programming and, thus, better execute their missions. 

6. Implementation Steps

Here are a few steps to implement a similar program:

  1. Conduct a thorough needs assessment with the local newcomer community
  2. Determine the target language of the Jiran program that fits with your local community and hire a language teacher
  3. Fundraise
  4. Recruit university student participants and local family participants; Match accepted students with families once university students’ applications received
  5. Use the needs assessment and participant lists to custom design the summer program content (get speakers, scheduling, etc).

7. Challenges 

Fundraising for this program is constantly a challenge that requires significant time and energy. Ensuring that the program is prepared to connect families to year-round support after the summer program ends is also a challenge that Jiran carefully must consider each year. There is a significant amount of training required to prepare university students to support newcomer families in a way that is sensitive to their needs, empowering, and respectful of their privacy while still being enjoyable for all involved; these relationships are always the richest cultural training experience that Jiran provides its students and family participants, and staff members dedicate significant time to cultivating and supporting these relationships. Finally, Jiran depends upon the local expertise of its staff members. Since Jiran has historically operated as a summer program, it can be a challenge to locate local staff available for this time period.

8. Resources and Partnerships

a. Financial

Jiran runs on a budget of approximately $45,000 per year. This includes all staff salaries, student participant housing and lodging, transportation funding, events, and space rentals. Jiran raises the majority of this money annually in grants, but it also asks student participants to pay a participation fee of $2,000 and to fundraise $500 to support the program’s operational costs before the summer. The fundraising task serves the dual purpose of securing funds for the program and teaching students how to fundraise and advocate effectively and ethically, a skill they typically employ once they start working with families during the summer. Jiran works with students to find an alternative funding source to support their participation if their institutions do not cover their participation fee using internship/summer funding and the fee poses an obstacle to participation.

b. Staff

Jiran has historically had three key staff members–a Site Director who runs program administration, a Site Community Coordinator who teaches language classes and leads liaising with local families, and a Program Assistant who leads daily logistics. All three staff members are from the local community and are hired as independent contractors by Middlebury College for the duration of the summer program. They volunteer a few hours year-round to ensure that program preparation and sustainability measures are in place. Jiran is overseen by regular Middlebury staff members at the Center for Community Engagement and the School in Jordan. 

c. Partners

Local partnerships have been the key to Jiran’s success. Jiran has forged strong relationships with the local school system, government, NGOs, religious organizations, and higher education institutions. Jiran staff have key personnel at these institutions on speed dial, and vice versa, which lets Jiran act as an accelerator for families seeking to build connections with local institutions. Jiran asks local experts from these partner institutions to give guest lectures to each summer’s cohort, and in this way, these local partners become part of the Jiran community. The local YWCA, school district and Islamic Association have been particularly vital partners who provide outreach opportunities, space, and programming to the Jiran community.

9. Looking to the Future

We hope that we can make this model part of the new normal when thinking about how higher education institutions engage with refugee communities.

We have thus far only conducted Jiran as a summer Arabic program. We are working towards creating a manual so that the model can be applied anywhere that has a higher education institution and a community of newcomer families, regardless of language. If you think your institution would be interested in working with Jiran, we’d love to have a conversation about how to bring the model to your community.

10. Contact Information

Name and email: Emily Goldman, Co-founder
Name and email: Maha Abdullah, Co-founder

Institution: Middlebury College

State: Vermont

More information on Jiran’s website here

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