Friday, Dec. 20, 2013
Campus life can feel like living in a bubble for some students.
For Virginia Commonwealth University bioinformatics sophomore Hasan Alkhairo, it took a service abroad trip to Cordoba, Spain, to break through it.
During his first year at VCU, Alkhairo was so focused on his studies and new campus life that he forgot “that there are other people in this world, including people only five miles away from VCU, living in totally different circumstances.”
But Alkhairo was part of a group of four students, one teacher’s assistant and a professor who traveled to Spain this past summer to work with Gypsies and African immigrant populations in local hospitals and community farms. The trip was organized by Anita Nadal, assistant professor of Spanish in the School of World Studies, part of the College of Humanities and Sciences, and focused on teaching sustainable energy and food and waste management skills to immigrants from the developing world who are living in the developed world.
Nadal said that students looking for service-learning opportunities abroad often travel to South America or Asia, but “this was one of the first programs to introduce them to work that can be done in Europe.”
Nadal said the students felt so inspired by the impact they made that when they came back to Richmond they were determined to find a way to reach out to immigrant populations in Virginia. And so VERDE was born.
VERDE is a VCU student organization that aims to deepen intercultural understanding and reduce the carbon footprint of foreign communities through translated signage, workshops and community engagement. It stands for Viable Environmental Research in a Diverse Energy-Conscience Community and is largely funded by a $20,000 International Strategic Initiative Award granted to Nadal by the Global Education Office for the 2013-2014 academic calendar.
Already this year, with Alkhairo as the organization’s president, the dozen students that make up the group have worked with Richmond’s Sacred Heart Center to help plant a community garden.
“As it yields fruit, we can distribute its produce to the local immigrant population,” Nadal said.
Their latest project took them five miles south of campus to a trailer park in Chesterfield County, just off Jefferson Davis Highway, on a rainy, cold, winter’s day.
The trailer park community is largely home to a group of Mixtecan immigrants. Originally indigenous to southern parts of Mexico, their history traces back to the 11th century. Compared to the English language’s 360 million native speakers, the Mixtecan language is only spoken by roughly 550,000 people in the world today, which creates a challenge for the VERDE volunteers.
To bridge this language gap, the VCU students attempted to find common ground through Spanish, a language known to at least half of the local residents.
VERDE students knocked on doors and invited families to either let them or to help them recycle their waste into a large dumpster the club had rented. Slowly, but surely, bags of waste and tires were hauled away and filled roughly half the dumpster by the end of the day.
“Saturday went well for the most part,” Alkhairo said. “Overall though, the most successful part of the day was building a relationship with the Mixteco people.”
As the two groups got to know one another better, the VCU students learned of many other opportunities for helping the Mixtecans to feel more at home in Virginia.
“The environmental aspect is the first start,” Alkhairo said. “As important as it is, there are so many other things that they need and we’re willing to aid them in.”
He said VERDE volunteers plan to continue their work with the community garden as well as to offer language workshops in the spring semester to help these families better communicate the challenges they are facing.
Reflecting on how his trip to Cordoba and now his work with VERDE has affected him in only six short months, Alkhairo feels this is just the beginning of a lot of great work still to be done.
“These experiences have finally opened my eyes, and they’ve stuck with me,” he said.
For more information on VERDE and upcoming community engagement opportunities, visit https://vcu.collegiatelink.net/organization/verde .
For more information on the VCU Global Education Office and the College of Humanities and Sciences' summer service-learning trip to Cordoba, Spain, visit http://vcu.studioabroad.com/index.cfm?FuseAction=Programs.ViewProgram&Program_ID=11104 .
The registration deadline is March 15, 2014.
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