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KNOXVILLE — On Saturday, a group of Iraqi refugees and a group of undergraduates from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, will sit down to a Thanksgiving feast and talk about what they’re thankful for.

Chances are, they will give thanks for what they’ve learned from each other.

Fifteen undergraduates, all kinesiology or recreation and sport management majors, spent this semester in a first-of-its-kind service learning class sponsored by the Department of Kinesiology, Recreation and Sport Studies in the College of Education, Health and Human Sciences. The course is taught by Adjunct Professor Sarah Hillyer and doctoral student Ashleigh Huffman, director and assistant director of Sport 4 Peace ( ).

The Thanksgiving party will include a traditional feast, games and activities for the children and a store of collected household items for the families.

Hillyer said there are more than 130 Iraqi families with refugee status living in Knoxville. They are scattered throughout the community. Though they were professionals in Iraq, many of the refugees are unable to find comparable jobs here and are striving to make financial ends meet in a struggling U.S. economy.

Hillyer and Huffman told their class that service learning is more than logging volunteer hours; it involves the application of theories learned in the classroom to meet the needs of the community.

With the goal of providing some sort of exercise or recreational outlet for the Iraqis, the students’ first task was to figure out what the refugees wanted and needed.

With some assistance from Bridge Refugee Resettlement Agency, Hillyer and Huffman laid the groundwork by finding individual Iraqi families and visiting with them. The students then hosted a big welcome party for the refugees at the UT softball complex and took them to a UT women’s soccer game.

By engaging in conversations with the Iraqi families, UT students learned that the greatest concerns included social interaction, health and fitness, and opportunities for their children to play. To address those needs, the class created three social events for the families, held weekly exercise classes for the women and provided games and playtime for the children.

After a semester of interaction, Hillyer said refugee families and UT students have made new friends and enjoyed getting to know one another through various social outings.

“As I spoke with the Iraqi man … I realized he was just like my father,” said Cody Tarpley, a senior in the class. “In fact, he was an engineer back in Iraq, just like my dad is here in America. I realized that everything this class stands for is possible and that sports can be an effective way to bring people of different backgrounds together.”

At the beginning of the semester, Hillyer and Huffman asked their students to write down the first words that came to mind when they thought of Iraq.

The students’ responses included “terrorists,” “poor” and “war.”

Recently, the students did the same exercise. This time, their responses included “loving people,” “kind,” “grateful,” “hard workers” and “educated.”

“They see these people not as numbers or distant images on a TV screen,” Hillyer said. “They now see them as people, no different than their fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers.”

The service learning class will be offered again in the spring.


Amy Blakely (865-974-5034,