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Photo from Torinn Fennelly

Penn students concerned about human rights are working one-on-one with refugees in a new club. 

Founded last semester, Penn Undergraduates for Refugee Empowerment is a group dedicated to raising awareness about issues relevant to international refugees and migrants by hosting on-campus events, partnering PURE members with refugees through online tutoring services and participating in human rights law clinics. 

College junior and PURE President Stephen Damianos started the club after unsuccessfully searching for a community service group focused on international refugees. 

“I looked into refugee work at Penn, partially because I’m Greek and the issues they are having there started affecting the culture here at home,” said Damianos, a former copy associate for The Daily Pennsylvanian. “I was disturbed to find that the University didn’t have refugee advocacy or awareness groups on the undergraduate level.”

A refugee is any person who is forced out of their home country because of natural disasters, war, persecution or any other act of violence, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. 

PURE is made up of three primary groups, each of which functions differently on campus. 

The educational branch of PURE puts Penn students in direct contact with refugees of all ages through tutoring services. Working with international organizations such as Paper Airplanes and the Invictus Institute, PURE members communicate with refugees using services like Skype.

“We are different from most tutoring groups because we are helping students from around the world,” College sophomore and Co-Director of Tutoring Gina Kahng said. “You could be Skyping with a refugee from Syria … or working with [refugees] living in Greece that come from all over. Our impact is much broader.”

Another branch of PURE organizes events to spread awareness about human rights issues. Although the club has only held one event so far, PURE Vice President and College junior Reem AlRabiah said she hopes to include include presentations from prominent figures in the Philadelphia refugee community in future events. 

The third branch of PURE partners with the Transnational Legal Clinic, Penn Law School's human rights and immigration clinic. Through this partnership, PURE members to work alongside refugees during legal proceedings. 

“Students that are not fully bilingual might only translate documents, but more proficient students could be sitting and translating for a client in court,” AlRabiah said.  

AlRabiah said PURE is "all-inclusive." It requires no application, and students can join at any point in the semester.

“PURE is so much about showing people that they are enough and with the right tools they can succeed … it seemed antithetical to our mission to restrict who could join,” Damianos said.

Looking to the future, PURE hopes to expand its tutoring program to work with refugee students in Philadelphia public schools, Kahng said. PURE is also working to create a fundraising program at Penn that would subsidize the tuition costs for a refugee attending university in Syria. 

“We are trying to simply make the lives of refugees better by giving them the tools they need to build better lives,” Damianos said.