Krishna Phuyal is a senior at Baldwin High School in Pittsburgh. In many ways, he’s a typical 17-year-old. He loves science, plays tennis and recently applied to his dream school—Temple University.
Unlike some of his classmates, however, Phuyal was born in a refugee camp in Nepal, where he spent the first eight years of his life. After spending a few years in Utah, his family moved to Pittsburgh in 2014.
Phuyal is now a member of the National Honor Society and participates in his school’s Math League. He hopes to major in Biochemistry and become a biochemist. Helping him to explore and achieve his goals is a unique program at Jewish Family & Children’s Service, HIAS’ local partner in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
For more than five years, JF&CS Pittsburgh has offered support specifically tailored to the needs of high school students like Phuyal through its Refugee Youth Employment Program. The innovative program, offered through the JF&CS career development center, aims to help their teenage clients achieve greater success in their future careers through mentoring, skills training and education.
What started as a small summer program in 2011 now reaches upwards of 60 high school juniors and seniors per year at two schools in the area.
“Through the program at JF&CS my plans have changed and I like to think that they have changed for the better,” said Phuyal. “This program teaches us basic life skills and general workforce knowledge that you hardly get in schools these days."
"One activity that really sticks with me is when we chose a career and modeled our life after it," Phuyal recalled. "This helped us to see if the career was right for us or not. It helped us to see what we needed to do to reach our goals.”
Phuyal is not the first student to benefit from the program for refugee youth. Hema Neupane, an alumnus of the program, came to the U.S. in 2009 as a refugee. Neupane is now in her senior year at Penn State University, where she is pre-med.
“From when I was very little, I knew that I wanted to be a doctor because when I was in the refugee camp in Nepal I saw so many people die from not having medication, doctors or proper care,” Neupane said. She plans to become a pediatrician and hopes, once she has completed her medical training, to return to Nepal and spend some time working there, before returning to the U.S. to practice.
Neupane is the kind of commendable young person schools brag about in their alumni newsletters. She found time in the midst of her pre-med coursework to teach an ESL class for elderly Bhutanese people, play midfield on her soccer team, and serve as a mentor to Bhutanese students in their first year at Penn through the Bhutanese American Students Club. But she admits that in the early days, there were challenges.
Arriving in the U.S. just in time to begin high school, she struggled not only with the language but with the culture. “Making friends, interacting with teachers, even ordering food... all that was difficult at first,” Neupane recalls.
This year, she was the one guiding high school students towards their own bright futures. Neupane gave students from this year’s cohort a tour of her college and answered questions. “Some of the students who came really liked the tour, and they liked the campus, and now they are planning on applying. So I think tours are really important,” Neupane said.
“The program developed out of a real need in the community,” says Bishnu Timsina, the JF&CS youth career counselor who runs this innovative program.
“American kids, their parents will help them look at schools and apply to college,” Timsina said. The Refugee Youth Employment Program steps in to support refugee and immigrant students with some of these things: organizing college visits, advising them during the application process and helping them with important paperwork, like the FAFSA.
The program, which currently serves refugee and immigrant students at Baldwin and Brashear High Schools, has worked with refugee youth who hail from a dizzying array of countries, including Bhutan, Iraq, Sudan and Nepal. “Being a refugee myself, I know the struggles that refugee youth face,” Timsina said.
Whether students aspire to a university degree, vocational school training or that first job, RYEP offers support to help them get there. From homework support and college visits to resume development and mock interviews, Timsina and her team seek to provide students with the tools they will need to succeed.
The results have been impressive.
About half of the 30 students in the program last year were seniors who graduated last June. Five of them are now attending Penn State of Greater Allegheny, six are at Community College of Allegheny County, two attend the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg and two have found full-time employment.
“Year after year, we see more students going on to higher education,” Timsina said. “They come to us saying ‘we want to go to college, but we don’t know how’ and so we help them navigate the process.”
Shashi Timsina is another example of how the RYEP alums are not only thriving, but finding ways to give back to their community as well. The 22-year-old former refugee and Baldwin High School graduate now attends Community College of Allegheny County, where he is working towards an associate degree in radiologic technology. He also works as a service navigator at the Northern Area Multi Service Center, a social services provider in Pittsburgh serving senior citizens, people with disabilities, and refugees.
Shashi says he took the job more than two years ago out of a desire to help those in need. “I always fall in love with my work and feel so great helping people from all around the world,” he said. “If I didn’t go to this after school program during high school I don’t think I would be in this position now. I learned so many things like interview skills, how to create a resume, writing a cover letter, and much more."
“This program has helped us to find a way, and now it's our turn to take that path,” said Phuyal.