Kenan program connects students and refugees, gives senior new perspective

Michelle Khalid began volunteering with the Supporting Women’s Action program her first year at Duke and has remained a part during her four-year career, co-directing the program her junior and senior years.

Among all the lessons Michelle Khalid has learned during her time at Duke, one of the most important came from outside the classroom.

“Conversations have value,” said Khalid, a graduating senior.

Since first expanding her world view as a freshmen doing field research with refugees as part of a Kenan Institute for Ethics’ DukeImmerse program in Nepal and Jordan, Khalid has found personal and global perspective through the simple act of one-on-one interaction. Music, food and chatting – sometimes only through hand gestures and laughter – have created life-altering friendships through Kenan’s Supporting Women’s Action (SuWA) program, a program that empowers local refugee women through education, small business development, and community building.

“Sitting next to a random stranger who might not speak the same language was terrifying, but doing SuWA showed I don’t need a buffer,” Khalid said. “I don’t think I would have gotten as much out of Duke if I didn’t have SuWA.”

Khalid volunteered with the program her freshman and sophomore years, spurred on by interactions with refugees abroad through DukeImmerse and Bass Connections. She’s acted as co-director the past two years, organizing activities and building relationships with herself, other Duke students and almost 40 local refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan and more. The group celebrates holidays from across the world, shares food from different cultures and even uses music videos as a form of cultural exchange, all with the purpose of making global ideas and issues feel more tangible. Khalid said her involvement with the program, which has more than doubled in size since she became co-director, has helped create unique opportunities on campus where undergraduates gain perspective not readily available elsewhere. Connecting the Duke and refugee communities through Kenan moves an education beyond the classroom.

“I’ve found it’s a really unique way to have a positive impact on a community I spent so much time learning about,” Khalid said.

After graduation, Khalid plans to work with Venture for America, a fellowship program that connects recent graduates with companies in cities trying to build startup cultures outside of obvious spots like New York or Silicon Valley. She hopes to live and work in Detroit or Philadelphia, utilizing skills honed through Kenan.

“SuWA showed me how to put myself out there, start a conversation and see where it takes you,” she said. “I’ve seen how important building relationships and understanding can be through SuWA.”