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NMSU professor receives Kellogg grant to help improve lives of Afghan refugees

A New Mexico State University professor has received a $150,000 grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation to continue – and build on – an effort to improve the lives of Afghan refugees in southern New Mexico through education and job training.

Rajaa Shindi, assistant professor in the NMSU College of Business, received the one-year grant in June 2022, less than a year after she and her daughter started the NMSU Afghan Refugee Response Project, an initiative that gained widespread attention for its efforts to aid refugees who fled Afghanistan after the Taliban seized control of the country in August 2021.

The grant allows Shindi to coordinate a strategic effort to improve refugees’ educational outcomes and economic security by deploying family stabilization and integration strategies in collaboration with community partners.

“The grant is supporting the refugees and their families and their educational goals at the same time,” Shindi said. “This is my first grant, and it’s been an amazing experience so far.”

Shindi has used the grant to develop a series of free English and computer literacy classes to help prepare Afghan refugees for the job market. The weekly evening classes began in August at the Southern New Mexico Islamic Center in Las Cruces. After completing the classes, participants will qualify to receive free training to obtain a commercial driver’s license.

Shindi has also partnered with Angela Owens, college assistant professor in the NMSU College of Health, Education and Social Transformation and director of the Glass Family Research Institute for Early Childhood Studies, to provide free child care during the classes.

Shindi decided to provide child care to increase class participation among women and families.

“It’s not just educational classes and technology training,” Shindi said. “We’re trying to build a community of support, specifically for parents and children.”

Shindi said the grant has provided job opportunities for NMSU undergraduate and graduate students from the College of Business and College of HEST as well as community members. Shindi and Owens have hired five NMSU students to support the project.

Owens said the project aligns with the College of HEST’s social justice mission and gives students working with the refugees an opportunity to use theoretical concepts outside the classroom and engage with children and families from diverse backgrounds.

“Our students who are in this project will become leaders because some of their colleagues will look to them for advice, guidance and feedback on not only working with children to provide education and care but also bringing in families in an authentic way so that they feel like they’re a part of the classroom,” Owens said.

Owens hired two students to run the child care facility, housed in a reconfigured room at the Southern New Mexico Islamic. The students, who came highly recommended for the project, work with up to a dozen children per class, ranging from toddlers to teens.

Shindi said part of the project includes a small research study to identify the refugees’ perceptions of well-being and how services support them and are delivered. Owens added that her students will work on a separate research component to understand how providing childcare for a diverse group changed their perspective of supporting families.

“All this would not be possible without community volunteers,” Shindi said. “A special thank-you goes to our grant manager, Monique Harrison, who leads English as a Second Language courses, and College of Business Associate Dean Mary Jo Billiot and her staff for their support and guidance.”