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SLU-Madrid and Rescate Join Forces to Support Refugees

by Katie Gortz on 02/08/2021

In an effort to raise awareness about the plight of Syrian refugees and support the Ale Askar School for refugee children in Lebanon, Simona Rentea, Ph.D., head of SLU-Madrid’s Political Science Department, invited Francisco Fuentes from the non-profit organization Rescate to campus to take part in the Spring 2018 Atlas Week: The Refugee Crisis and the Role of NGOs in Europe's Response. This invitation set in motion a series of events that has led to a lasting partnership between SLU-Madrid and Rescate in an effort to aid refugees in Spain.

Shortly after Fuentes presented a lecture at Atlas Week, professors Almudena Olondo (History), Melanie Mitchell (Theology), and Anne Dewey (English), launched a social justice fusion initiative among their respective courses: Origins of the Modern World; Social Justice; and Conflict, Social Justice and Literature. The fusion initiative called for joint sessions between the three classes to discuss issues of social justice and to work together on service learning projects. Olondo, Mitchell and Dewey imagined the initiative as an opportunity for students to pool their literary, historical, and theological learning about social justice to enrich and inform each other's experiences. 

 In light of the growing refugee crisis, they decided to focus the joint sessions on the topic of refugees and develop social justice fusion projects with Rescate. For Dewey, Mitchell and Olondo, there were many reasons why Rescate was an ideal partner for the initiative. The organization has a comprehensive and effective approach for helping refugees that includes caring for their physical and psychological security, economic self-sufficiency, and developing relationships with the community. They also have a special focus on women and children and are the only NGO in Spain that provides aid to people seeking asylum to protect at-risk youth and those in danger of persecution due to gender or sexuality.

The team of professors explained that part of the rationale for collaborating on social justice projects with Rescate was to allow for more continuity from semester to semester. "While recognizing that our campus contributes to lots of initiatives, we hoped that committing to an ongoing project could offer meaningful contributions to an NGO while building knowledge and community by providing a way for students, staff and faculty to collaborate on activities semester after semester, and see progress along the way," said Mitchell. As a small organization, Rescate depends on volunteer support and has been very enthusiastic about the collaboration with SLU-Madrid. Rescate's projects are also varied and offer ample opportunity for students to draw upon their own personal and educational interests and talents in language, the arts, teaching and more.

Ale Askar School for Syrian Refugees in Lebanon

Students at the Ale Askar School for Syrian refugees in Lebanon connect for a virtual English class taught by a SLU-Madrid student. (Submitted photo)

What began as a political science lecture grew into a social justice fusion initiative and has continued to expand. Two years after Fuentes participated in Atlas Week, SLU-Madrid faculty, staff and students are involved in dozens of ongoing initiatives with Rescate, ranging from fundraising events to teaching virtual English classes and sending handmade greeting cards to refugee children in Lebanon. 

Social Justice Fusion

Professors Olondo, Mitchell and Dewey piloted the social justice fusion initiative in the spring of 2019. Two years later, they now take the study of social justice beyond the classroom for their students through seven fusion projects they have designed in collaboration with Rescate.

At the conclusion of the fall semester, Nick Garbayo, a sophomore from the United States, summed up the essence of the fusion initiative: "As a college student, it’s easy to talk about social justice yet not take action due to prior commitments. The social justice fusion project has really made me take a step back and reflect on my own privileges and priorities, as well as my education and attitude towards charitable work." 

Learn about the fusion projects

Language Teaching to Refugees

During the Fall 2020 semester, six students chose to teach virtual English classes to Syrian refugee children in the Ale Askar School in Lebanon as their social justice fusion project. Before starting classes, they completed the teacher training offered to the volunteers in the SLU-Madrid Community ESL program, a community outreach project dating back to 2002 in which SLU-Madrid students volunteer to teach free English classes to locals in Madrid. 
A junior who is originally from Venezuela, Jorge Urribarri, was among those who chose to teach English to the refugee children. He said, "One of the things I believe (is that) everyone should have access to knowledge. The fact that all the way from Madrid I am able to connect with and teach these children in Lebanon is amazing to me."

Jona Bojdani teaches an online English lesson to refugee children in Lebanon.
In a recent class she taught to a group of young learners at the Ale Askar School,  SLU-Madrid senior Jona Bojdani discussed world religions and how they teach the common values of honesty and goodness. When discussing Christianity, she showed her family's Christmas holiday traditions. (Submitted photo)

Urribarri, who learned to speak some Arabic when living in Dubai, enhanced his connection with the children by speaking to them in their language from time to time. "I initially thought that what would bring me most satisfaction was the fact that I was teaching them (the children) something, making them learn a language that will help them in the future. But what truly motivated me and engulfed me in the project was their happiness when engaging with us."

For Tristan Kirkland, a sophomore who is originally from the United States, collaborating with Rescate was one of the highlights of the Fall 2020 semester. "I went into it a bit skeptical because of my lack of English teaching experience, but the kids immediately made clear to me how much it mattered to them. They came ready to learn with big smiles which gave me a lot to reflect on about how lucky we all are here at SLU to have the opportunities before us."

Cristina Ponce de León, who was completing her final semester at SLU-Madrid in the fall, elected to teach Spanish to refugees in her home city of Madrid at Rescate's offices. She says she was impressed with the training and support she received from the organization and found the experience to be truly meaningful. 

Research Projects

Students may also choose to undertake original research on a topic related to refugees for their social justice fusion projects. Articles are then posted on Rescate's website. 
Articles on the following subjects were written in Spring 2020:

  • Education vs. early marriage in the Middle East
  • Gender Equality in the Middle East
  • Female genital mutilation in Ethiopia
  • Climate Change in the Sahel
  • LGBIT in Spain (Asylum and refuge)
  • Food security in the Somali region (Ethiopia) 

Refugee Awareness Video Game

In an effort to raise awareness, sensitize and inform about why refugees flee their home countries and to show the hardships they endure on the journey, a team of students launched a project to design a video game about the refugee experience in Fall 2019. The game was designed as an interactive way to share a story about the difficulties and dangers refugees face. Should future social justice fusion students choose to move forward with the project, it would ultimately be available on Rescate's website. 

Promoting Ale Askar Student Art

This semester, a group of social justice fusion students decided to move forward with the creation of a calendar or weekly planner using artwork produced by refugee children who attend the Ale Askar School. Any proceeds earned will be donated to the school. 

Assist the Human Rights Club Tapas Night Fundraiser

Last year, the Human Rights Club, led by SLU-Madrid students Lamia Seffar, Monica Carroll, Rose Chancy and Addie Knight, organized a Wine and Tapas Night to raise funds for Rescate. The event raised nearly one thousand euros for the organization. Social justice fusion students were invited to serve as volunteers for the event. 

Letters of Love Campaign

Students create and send handmade cards that include greetings, messages of support, riddles, poems and more to members of the Ale Askar community. Letters can be directed to children, to the whole English class, to the children's parents and to the workers at Ale Askar. Students sent more than 50 cards in the fall and plan to send more this spring.

Letters of Love
Examples of "Letters of love," sent to Ale Askar in Fall 2020. (Submitted photo)

"The idea of sending the 'Letters of Love' was to establish a personal connection between our students and the Ale Askar students—a modified pen pal program," explained Mitchell. If students from Ale Askar respond to the cards, future SLU students will be able to respond to them even if the ones who initially wrote them are no longer on campus or in the social justice fusion courses.  

SLU-Madrid senior Jona Bojdani, who hails from Albania, saw the Letters of Love campaign as a chance to show refugee children that they are not excluded from society. "Knowing that we have people out there who care for us makes our lives more meaningful, even if we do not get to see each other," she said.

Development of an Online Fundraising Campaign for the Ale Askar School

Senior and native madrileño Antonio Sancho noticed that no other students had signed up for the social justice fusion project that entailed developing an online fundraising campaign for the Ale Askar School. 

After a casual conversation with Francisco Fuentes at Rescate, Sancho was surprised to be given full responsibility to oversee the creation, launch and marketing of a GoFundMe campaign, from the ground up. While the task aligned well with his international business major, he was taken aback to be given so much responsibility.

Sancho explained that at Ale Askar, resources are scarce and the school has many needs: books, money to pay teachers, food, school supplies, building maintenance, and basic hygiene products, as well as the resources needed to fight issues like early marriage and child labor, which are common in the refugee camp and interfere with childhood education. 

The campaign went live in early January, and Sancho has set the goal to raise 18,000 euros. These funds would cover the operations of the school for a year. For Sancho, what makes the project so meaningful is knowing that the funds can and will make a real difference, and not just for one or two people, but for many. "Working for the good of others feels great. I can imagine their smiles and happiness when the funds arrive," he said.

Although his semester of social justice fusion has ended, Sancho plans to see the campaign through to completion, which he expects will be another semester. He is now actively marketing the campaign and is hoping to hire influencers in different countries to raise awareness, an effort which he plans to fund himself, as his own donation. This semester, students are also invited to help him promote his campaign.

Learn more and donate to Sancho's campaign: 


The relationship between Rescate and SLU-Madrid has also grown to include internship placements for students at the NGO. During her final semester as an undergraduate at SLU-Madrid, Carla Aparicio, who is originally from Panama, completed an internship at Rescate as part of her psychology degree.
Aparicio's internship focused on developing protocols of action specifically for transgender refugees. Rescate is the only NGO in Spain that provides aid to people seeking asylum for reasons of persecution due to gender identity and sexuality. They offer necessities such as shelter, food, and transportation as well as legal and psychological aid and assistance with job searching.
"Recently, they have been getting more and more cases of asylum seekers who are transgender women, who have had to run away from their countries because of threats, violence, legal discrimination, and an array of other reasons that present a threat to their personal safety," Aparicio explained. "Not being an organization specialized in transgender people, it has been a process to adapt to the specific needs of this community, which is at the point where I came in." 
The goal of Aparicio's internship was to propose a specialized model she termed diagnoses, to use when new cases of trans people arrived. "What I mean by diagnosis is that the model, ideally, would serve as a way to see where the person was at the moment they arrived at Rescate seeking assistance, what experiences specific to trans people they had gone through and from there, it would be determined what things needed more urgent care. For example, some people would need more psychological help than others, others would need to be paid more attention to by the legal team, etc." 

To develop the model, she did extensive research into experiences within the trans community, while also drawing from her own experience as a trans woman. The model she created establishes a foundation for any number of possible scenarios to aid Rescate in supporting members of the trans community. 

Over the course of the last few years, Career Services has facilitated internships at Rescate for several students like Aparicio, who have taken on projects ranging from translating documents for the Ale Askar School to helping manage their institutional relations.


The spirit of service is part of what makes Saint Louis University and its Madrid Campus distinct. Every semester, hundreds of students live out the University's mission to serve the greater good by teaching free English classes to the local community, serving sandwiches and offering companionship to the homeless, and countless other meaningful projects. Over the course of recent semesters, additional campus projects have joined the effort to support Rescate. 

Learn about volunteering with Rescate


Concerned about the future of the children in Ale Askar for whom the school is their only educational opportunity, Rentea, head of SLU-Madrid's Political Science Department, started a Big Brother/Big Sister program, through which members of the SLU community can contribute to help make the school financially sustainable. A monthly donation program and a series fundraising events, such the Human Rights Club Tapas Night and other cultural events, were launched. Several faculty members have already committed to giving monthly donations. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the Human Rights Club is planning alternative activities for the upcoming semester to continue in its support of Rescate.

"The ambition is to turn this into a service opportunity involving the whole campus community with an educational project. We wish to support the refugee population because they are in an extreme situation of social exclusion and we hope to ensure they do not become Syria's lost generation," said Rentea.

Another fundraising initiative was the sale of brick-shaped charms in the SLU-Madrid Bookstore, alongside a small display about Rescate and the brick project. The bricks are designed and donated by Brickmanne, a Madrid artist/designer, and symbolize Rescate's recycling and rebuilding project, in which they train Syrians to sort, recycle, and reuse rubble to rebuild Syrian cities. The idea is not only to provide much needed housing but also to give people work skills to develop sustainable labor and business.

In Fall 2019, SLU-Madrid faculty and the Human Rights Club arranged for the brick charms to be sold at the Bookstore and campus events, such as the Thanksgiving lunch and the music department’s final student music concerts. The Fall 2019 end-of-semester concert even included a short presentation about Rescate. Brickmanne attended the concert and was available to speak about her art and the brick project. 

Language Teaching

New in the Spring 2021 semester, the opportunity to teach English to children at Ale Askar will be extended beyond students in the social justice fusion classes. Faculty, staff and students who wish to participate should contact Anne Dewey at:

Befriending Program

When Dewey launched the social justice fusion initiative in her Conflict, Social Justice and Literature course, she thought she should also do volunteer work alongside her students. She had recently become an empty nester and felt the timing was ideal to do more to give back to the community. After completing a comprehensive screening process and a training program at Rescate to sensitize volunteers to the situation of refugees, Dewey was matched with a family from Ghana as part of Rescate's Befriending program.

"The Befriending initiative began when Rescate realized that the asylum seekers in Madrid needed not only legal/bureaucratic and psychological help but also social contact. Many were lonely," Dewey explained. "The program helps to integrate refugee and host populations, with the added benefit of helping people improve Spanish through that contact. (Spanish teaching is not the main focus though; Rescate has separate Spanish classes and job mentoring programs.)  Rescate began the program, but it now partners with ACNUR and will expand to Málaga this spring."

Dewey was introduced to the Ghanaian parents at Rescate's offices and a lasting friendship was born. "We WhatsApp, talk on the phone, get together for shared meals (we all love cooking), go to the park with the kids, troubleshoot CVs in Spanish and paycheck questions, and celebrate holidays." 

"This experience has been incredibly meaningful to me in many ways: to recognize the courage it takes to leave everything to protect your family, to understand the terrible strain of having nothing and being dependent on others, to see the constant pressure of being viewed as suspect on the street and the difficulty of getting ahead in a foreign culture," Dewey reflected. She has also been delighted to see how her friends at SLU-Madrid have also welcomed the opportunity to build a friendship with this family.

Rescate's Befriending coordinators, Virginia De Miguel and Olatz San Sebastian, as well as two asylum seekers from Rescate, spoke at SLU-Madrid's International Women's Day Symposium last spring. They discussed the global situation of people seeking asylum due to persecution for reasons of gender/sexuality and the experience of having to flee one's country.

SLU-Madrid students have also expressed interest in Befriending. The program requires a long-term commitment and volunteers must be able to speak Spanish.