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NMSU program helps improve the lives of refugees in southern New Mexico

Rajaa Shindi (left), founder of the NMSU Refugee Response Project; and Said Sadullah Hashimi, a student with the program
Scott Brocato
Rajaa Shindi (left), founder of the NMSU Refugee Response Project; and Said Sadullah Hashimi, a student with the program

The NMSU Afghan Refugee Response Project is a program that helps improve the lives of refugees in southern New Mexico through education and job training. Scott Brocato talked about the program with its founder, Rajaa Shindi; as well one of her students, Said Sadullah Hashimi*, a former Afghanistan army officer who fled his country more than two years ago following the Taliban uprising.

SCOTT BROCATO:

Rajaa, tell us about your program, the NMSU Afghan Refugee Response Project. First of all, what is its mission?

RAJAA SHINDI:

Well, the main mission of the program is to support and empower refugees and immigrants in Dona Ana County. We started as more of a volunteer effort, and now we're proudly--I can say this--that we have a very good-sized program, and we're also proud of our collaboration with our partners, which is really the Las Cruces public schools, the Lutheran Family Services; and of course, NMSU plays a big role of that, too, and the Southern New Mexico Islamic Center. It began in summer of 2022.

SCOTT BROCATO:

And in 2022, the WK Kellogg Foundation awarded you a $150,000 grant to start the program. How did that help your program grow?

RAJAA SHINDI:

Yeah, I mean, that's an amazing gift from the Kellogg foundation to us.

As I said, we started as more of a volunteer (staff): students, myself and my daughter was also involved. She was a student and working with our volunteers. We tried to support the Lutheran Family Services and the other refugee agency here in town to support with collecting some donations to really support the Afghan refugees to Las Cruces. And that kind of... the news highlighted what we were doing, because it really attracted some people's attention here on campus. And the (lady from the) Kellogg Foundation, I think she read the article, and she reached out to me and my daughter.

And it's really, I think, what she saw in us: it's more of the passion--passion to serve, and passion to support. And I personally have this passion to empower others through education. So she recognized this right away, and then she came back to me and my daughter Hiba and our teams (and said) “OK well, we can give you a gift through the college business from the foundation...to continue the effort and add more services."

SCOTT BROCATO:

You even offer things like free childcare, don't you?

RAJAA SHINDI:

We did, and we still do that, especially to support the women, to allow them (to) attend classes--any type of classes, any type of service, any type of training, even sometimes just events. We provided the childcare, and we still do that as part-time during the classes to give them that opportunity to attend and not put that as a limitation. Because most of the time, if they have children, they won't be able to attend their classes. And it's free of charge to them. All the classes,of course, are free of charge.

It's not just classes; it's more of preparation, really. So I prep them to adapt to the new society, and to always remind them to set their priorities; and (to) always remind them of education here is very valuable. And it's really, it's a way of empowerment in this country. Goal number one for me was, and still is, (to) earn the trust from the people who arrive. And we become more of the source of to go to if they have any questions, if they need consultation, if they need any type of service. That's the part I really love to see.

SCOTT BROCATO:

Said Hashimi, tell us your story, and how you ended up in Las Cruces and in this program. You were a former Afghanistan army officer who fled your country in August of 2021 following the Taliban uprising.

SAID SADULLAH HASHIMI:

First, thank you (to) Dr. Rajaa. We’re working together (as a) team. My first goal is education. Last week I completed my CD. I have (a) truck driving license, Class A. I'm very happy.

2021, first I come to New Jersey, and then to Las Cruces. And then I see Las Cruces. Small town. Very good; people (are) good, friendship is good, education is good. I like Las Cruces.

SCOTT BROCATO:

And your family is still in Afghanistan?

SAID SADULLAH HASHIMI:

Yes, sir. My family is still in Afghanistan. Hopefully in my family’s future, (they’ll) come here.

SCOTT BROCATO:

Your daughter is working on getting her GED?

SAID SADULLAH HASHIMI:

Dr. Rajaa is helping my kids, my two daughters and two sons. Also following (an) education study to come to college through GED.

RAJAA SHINDI:

So through his daughter, we are able to access more girls in Afghanistan, especially women and girls, and support them in some technology classes and (some) business entrepreneur classes. We're doing phase one right now, and hopefully we can (look) for other sources of funding to support this initiative so we can kind of expand it to more and more girls. Because I really see, when I meet with Mr. Said’s daughter, I can sense the excitement and the hope, and the eagerness for them to really learn more and to improve themselves and find new opportunities. So I feel like that's a commitment I hope that we can achieve.

SCOTT BROCATO:

Your grant was extended last fall. What future goals do you have for your program?

RAJAA SHINDI:

Well, (my) number one goal is to continue the services. Of course, we have the goal to increase participants, which we've now, I'm happy to see, more than doubled. Number three is to continue a bridge, and help the refugees and immigrants kind of bridge into higher education, more advanced education. So working with the NMSU officials, and also the admission office, to sort of help, and smoothing that admission process. Like there is a criteria for the refugee, and they have a certain status they can apply for education, and they can...apply for certain financial aid opportunities here on campus.

And then because, as you know, the challenge of...you have to work and you have to support family. At the same time, we're trying to push them through education. The challenge is the financial limitation that they have. So that's one of the projects that's currently working with the college, with the admission office, and hopefully we can (start) smoothing that transition and the process in a way that it's easier for them to apply, get a grant or scholarship, and continue their education, even on the slow basis. They can start part-time and balance between work and education. So that's one of the objectives: sort of sustain this program after 2025 and find a way (to) either become a center or join an existing center.

SCOTT BROCATO:

Thank you both for speaking with KRWG about this program. Thank you so much.

SAID SADULLAH HASHIMI:

You are welcome, sir. Thank you so much.

Scott Brocato has been an award-winning radio veteran for over 35 years. He has lived and worked in Las Cruces since 2016, and you can hear him regularly during "All Things Considered" from 4 pm-7 pm on weekdays. Off the air, he is also a local actor and musician, and you can catch him rocking the bass with his band Flat Blak around Las Cruces and El Paso.
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