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IOWA Magazine | 02-22-2022

University of Iowa Course Examines Refugee and Immigrant Experience

Students help raise awareness of issues faced by displaced Afghans and other newcomers to the U.S.
Students tour the UI power plant PHOTO COURTESY PETER GERLACH UI faculty member Peter Gerlach works with community organizations to support immigrants and refugees in Iowa.

Over Thanksgiving, Sara Zejnic met a refugee in Iowa whose wife and child were unable to flee Afghanistan with him this past August before the Taliban took control. The man's child was the same age as Zejnic's daughter.

"As a parent, my heart broke, because he missed his child's first birthday celebration," says Zejnic, director of refugee and immigrant services at the nonprofit Catherine McAuley Center in Cedar Rapids. "It could be any of us. It's an accident of birth or of circumstance that has led people to be forced to flee their homes."

As the only resettlement service provider in eastern Iowa, the Catherine McAuley Center has served about 250 recent Afghan refugees making new homes in the Hawkeye state. Now Zejnic and her colleagues are turning to a class of University of Iowa students to help raise awareness of the refugee and immigrant experience in eastern Iowa and encourage community members to support the center's mission.

Peter Gerlach, an adjunct assistant professor in the UI International Studies Program and Summer Institute coordinator for the International Writing Program, teaches the spring undergraduate course Community Engaged Learning with Refugees and Immigrants in Iowa and is hosting a series of free public educational programs this semester with the Iowa City Foreign Relations Council to share refugee and immigrant stories with Iowans. He says his students will help educate the community on refugee issues and the Catherine McAuley Center's work, hold an interactive campus event that simulates the refugee experience for invited guests, and create a UI student organization to support local refugees and immigrants.

"I want to show students that an international education doesn't always mean that you have to go abroad," says Gerlach. "Hopefully, they can help create a more welcoming and supportive Iowa City-Cedar Rapids community for these newest of Iowans, our new neighbors, who are and will be moving here over the coming months."


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Join upcoming online programs about the refugee experience hosted by Gerlach and the Iowa City Foreign Relations Council.

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