ETHS student starts nonprofit to welcome refugees to the Evanston community


Daily file photo by Jorge Melendez

A new Multilingual Services Department was added at the beginning of the 2023-24 school year to accommodate a growing multilingual student population.

Kristen Axtman, Reporter

Evanston Township High School senior Zoe Kaufman raised money for refugees as part of her Bat Mitzvah project when she was 13. After cooking dinner with Syrian refugee families around the same time, she felt even more connected to the refugees in Evanston.

“I thought, ‘These people are here with me and I have the power to help them and help their experience,’” Kaufman said.

In March, Kaufman launched the nonprofit Refugees are Served Here, which is meant to make her community more welcoming for refugees. Along with eight board members and about 40 general members from ETHS, she organizes fundraising and community events for refugees in Evanston and surrounding areas.

Emma Yaaka, a refugee from Uganda and advocate for refugee rights, helped connect the nonprofit to refugees in the community through his personal connections. 

Refugees are Served Here hosted an event in October where organizers sold raffle tickets and a panel of refugees answered questions for an audience of about 50. Refugees set up tables to promote their business or business ideas. An African clothes seller and a fake plant maker were some of 15 to advertise their businesses. 

Yaaka said it is important to support refugees in their business aspirations. 

“Starting a business takes capital,” Yaaka said. “Refugees are trying to work so that they can meet their needs and in most cases they are paid less.”

The nonprofit is also putting together a cookbook with recipes from refugees and others who want to submit. The recipes will be coupled with personal and family stories.  

The project combines the nonprofit’s two pillars — building community connections and increasing economic stability for refugees by planning fundraisers. 

“The main point is to encompass the identity of the U.S. and intertwine refugees into the communities that we have here,” Kaufman said.

Kaufman, who is leaving for college next year, said she hopes to continue the nonprofit. She hopes to partner with an ETHS junior who will continue the mission next year. 

For now, she plans to host a cooking series to promote cultural pride with Yaaka, who runs a YouTube channel. 

Sophie Milner-Gorvine, event manager for Refugees are Served Here, is a member of the group. She said she joined the nonprofit because of her passion for immigration reform. In elementary school, she participated in a Spanish-English immersion program where she was exposed to many immigrant families. 

“Once we get this cookbook made and published, it will be a little legacy,” Gorvine said.

Yaaka said people are often unaware of refugees in their communities. Organizations like Refugees are Served Here helps fight the oppression of refugees and empower younger generations. 

Yaaka added that Refugees are Served Here aims to build trust with refugee communities and effectively use resources, unlike many other organizations attempting to help refugees.

“I learned from Yaaka and other people that I connected with the desire (of refugees) to be financially stable, but also, as humans, wanting to be loved and needed and welcomed into their communities,” Kaufman said.  

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