A Ukrainian flag flies among several pride flags at the First Congregational Church of Blue Hill. The church is one of seven houses of worship on the Blue Hill Peninsula and Deer Isle that is working to sponsor refugee students' education at the local high school. Credit: Ethan Genter / BDN

Churches across the Blue Hill Peninsula are working to welcome refugee students from across the globe and sponsor their education at the area’s local boarding school.

Seven churches on the peninsula and Deer Isle have teamed up with George Stevens Academy to raise money that will be used to bring three students, likely one from Afghanistan and two from Ukraine, to the academy’s campus in Blue Hill for the upcoming term. 

The academy, which serves as the region’s local high school, has a long history of international boarding students in its dorms, but this is the first time there has been a concerted effort to raise money to bring refugees to the school.

“This is really something new for us,” said Tim Seeley, the head of school at the academy. 

The churches spearheaded the effort, and the school has also started its own fund to cover the costs for refugees. The churches’ primary goal is to muster up about $120,000 — enough to pay for room and board for three students at the academy. 

The idea began to percolate last fall. The academy’s dean of students has a connection with a student from Afghanistan from when she previously worked at a school in Utah, said Prudy Heilner, a trustee on the academy’s board and a member of the St. Francis-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church in Blue Hill. 

That student came to Maine through Seeds of Peace, a program designed to cultivate the next generation of global leaders in communities divided by conflict. But their younger brother was stuck in Afghanistan as the Taliban took over last year. 

So the church group started to work out how to help the brother get to America and study at GSA. The idea expanded as Russia invaded Ukraine earlier this year.

“The real effort for this type of work started with one student in mind,” Heilner said. “But the goal is to be able to offer this to students across Afghanistan, Ukraine and other places.”

The Afghan student is expected to make it to the U.S. next week. Applications are in the works for two Ukrainian students after connections were made by a former GSA teacher who was helping refugees in Poland. 

Diana Page, a former official at the U.S. State Department and a member of the First Congregational Church of Blue Hill, said that several families wanted to take in refugees themselves, but there’s a hesitancy at the federal level to place people seeking asylum in such rural parts of the country.

But that changes when they can be in a boarding school environment, surrounded by other students and staff. 

“We may be a rural area, but we have some very good academies that offer a great education,” Page said.  

The churches plan to hold events to help people learn about the plight of refugees, as well as concerts to raise money for the sponsorships. The first event is planned for July 30, with presentations about refugees and performances by musicians, including Noel “Paul” Stookey of the iconic folk group Peter, Paul and Mary.