This summer, Felicia Matz will take her experience teaching literacy skills and knowledge of the French language to an environment far different than her community of Venice.
Matz, 37, a student at UCLA studying international development, will travel thousands of miles to the Kala Refugee Camp in the south-central African country of Zambia in July to help develop a Library and Computer Lab Project for two months.
The Kala camp, established in August 2000 and located in the northern part of Zambia, hosts thousands of refugees who fled the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly known as Zaire.
As a project facilitator with FORGE (Facilitating Opportunities for Refugee Growth and Empowerment), a United Nations partner organization, Matz will develop her project to harness resources and provide education through partnership with refugees, according to FORGE.
The FORGE Library and Computer Lab Project aims to bring updated computers, software and books to a refugee camp where there are currently only six outdated computers and few books, which are either “inappropriate or unreadable,” according to the organization.
In addition to the library project, FORGE team members plan to develop various other projects, including a health center project and a pre-school program, at the Kala camp, which hosts approximately 18,500 refugees, most of whom come from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to the north of Zambia.
Matz said the primary goal of the library and computer project is “to promote literacy, learning and empowerment for all people in the camp” and increase library and computer lab use.
“We want to increase use among young women and children as well as promote the joys of learning,” said Matz, who has lived in Venice since 2001.
Through the organized classes, FORGE volunteers say they hope to help the refugees at Kala increase their knowledge and ability to find employment upon returning to their native country.
Nick Talarico, operations director for FORGE, said the nonprofit organization was created in 2003 by Stanford University student Kjerstin Erickson and works primarily with American student volunteers. The volunteers receive seven months of intensive education, training and development with FORGE before living for nine weeks at a refugee camp.
The organization works to create “locally-tailored” community development projects that will ultimately be run by the refugees, Talarico said.
While the organization started in Botswana, it has since expanded to camps such as Kala in Zambia.
“Zambia has been a good place to work because itís so underdeveloped and our dollars go a long way,” Talarico said.
Matz became involved with FORGE while studying at UCLA and she says she chose to take part in the library and computer project at Kala because itís where she felt she could make the most impact.
Many of the refugees from the Congo, a former colony of Belgium, speak French, and with Matz being fluent in French, she feels it will enable her to communicate well with the camp population.
For the refugees who speak only Swahili and not English or French, translators will be provided.
The library project was also fitting for Matz because she has experience teaching literacy to adults as a volunteer at the Venice Public Library, she said.
When project volunteers arrive at Kala in early July, they will be working at the existing Kala Library to upgrade the facility with new computers and create a community space conducive to reading and studying.
As part of the project to promote literacy, Matz and other volunteers will teach refugees a reading and writing program, create a young womenís book club, discuss various books and encourage critical thinking.
Other activities include letter and resumÈ writing programs.
Most of the illiteracy that exists at Kala is among the women and children refugees, so the FORGE volunteers plan to dedicate much of their resources toward them in the two-month trip, Matz said.
“With the limited amount of time, we need to put the resources where we can to get the quickest response,” she said.
By providing updated computers and software to the camp, the volunteers will also have the opportunity to teach the refugees “skills theyíll need in urban areas,” Matz said.
Talarico said FORGE volunteers such as Matz have a profound influence on the refugees they get to work with.
“Theyíre the heart and soul of our project,” Talarico said.
As for Matz, the opportunity to travel thousands of miles away from Venice to help make a difference in the lives of refugees is, most of all, a chance to give back.
“Weíre very fortunate to live in this country,” Matz said. “We have a lot of opportunities and I want to give somebody else the chance to have more opportunities.”
Information on FORGE, www.forgenow.org/.