By Elsa Johnson
I began working with refugees when I returned to Chicago after living in Bolivia with my husband for two years. At one level, I could identify with their experience of being a foreigner out of my element, feeling ignorant, and needing friendly people who made me feel comfortable. Our Bolivian friends who treated us like family probably were all that kept me going at times.
I wanted to pay it forward in some way, so when I returned home, I began researching how to assist refugees.
That was one huge difference between the refugees and me – I got to go home. They are refugees because after an extensive interview and screening process that usually takes a few years, it is officially deemed too dangerous for them to return home.
The trauma they experience before arriving here is almost unimaginable. I often think back to a conversation with an Iraqi friend about all the terrible things he experienced, including his son being shot at school during an Al Qaida raid (he survived and I got to know him well). My friend looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Elsa, I hope you never, ever experience the horrors that I have.”
Another family told me they that a terrorist group had killed a friend and had made the friend’s family pay for the bullet. The first-hand accounts were both horrific and fascinating, and they motivated me all the more to offer as much help as I could.
I loved my job at World Relief, and I often found myself chatting with people about my experience. I quickly discovered that many people hold misconceptions about refugees. The most common is that refugees are illegal immigrants.
This is not true. Refugees go through an extensive interview and screening process ahead of their arrival, which means that they are here legally when they step foot on American soil. We Welcome Refugees offers excellent information on the refugee screening process, the difference between refugees and immigrants, and how agencies can be sure refugees are not terrorists, as well as other information, It also addresses the biblical framework for why to help refugees.
Once here, refugees receive subsidized housing and medical insurance through Medicaid for 90 days after their arrival. After that, they are expected to have a job that provides a steady income, find a place to live, and begin learning English within 90 days. That timeline is mighty hard to accomplish!
Organizations like WRC and other resettlement agencies come alongside newly arrived refugees to administer federal funds and provide extra support as they get used to their new homes. Family and individual refugee cases are assigned to resettlement agencies, which pick them up at the airport and drive them to their new homes.
The agencies already have found and furnished the homes. Other services provided include, ESL classes, job training and resume help, case management, furniture and clothing donations, youth services and more.
My particular role included helping new families find a school and register their children and serve as school liaison. I also planned and ran our after-school program that focused on tutoring, homework help, and English learning.
Being a kid can be hard, especially when you’re away from everything familiar to you, but we had fun. We did special art projects, kicked around a soccer ball, played “Steal the Bacon” and hoped that the kids could forget about their difficulties for a few hours and just be kids.
I grew to know and love so many wonderful families in my few years there. What I found most lovely was visiting homes.
I often went to a newly arrived family’s home because the lack of a common language made it was too difficult to explain over the phone that I was going to show up in a van every week and take their child to our office for the after-school program. Motions and gestures and pictures were usually necessary.
You can volunteer for roles at their offices, tutor children with homework or help adults with English, provide furniture or clothing donations, or “mentor” families by coming alongside them by building a relationship and more.
Entering some homes was like stepping into a foreign country. Like little capsules of Nepal or Myanmar or Iraq right in the middle of Chicago. I tried to pick up on and adapt to differing cultural norms, but I was laughed at good naturedly from time to time, such as the time I visited a Congolese family and held food the wrong way.
No matter where the refugees came from, there were inevitably tasks that families needed help with, which for me were simple but confusing to someone who never had to deal with them before. Which mail is junk and which are my important bills? What documents need to be brought to school when registering a child? How do I use the bus or train to get to my doctor’s appointment? It can be overwhelming.
All of these small daily tasks are too much for refugee resettlement agencies to handle. The reality is that these agencies are usually understaffed and operating without enough money.
That’s why volunteers are so needed. Resettlement agencies make it easy for people to volunteer. You can volunteer for roles at their offices, tutor children with homework or help adults with English, provide furniture or clothing donations, or “mentor” families by coming alongside them by building a relationship and more.
Maybe you are in a position to give or raise money. Depending on the agency, there could be one-time ways to help such as: winter clothing drives, holiday gift programs, school supply drives or even just attending their annual fundraiser.
If you live in a reasonably large-sized city, there probably is at least on close by. Read about their philosophies to make sure you can align with them.
When you contact the agency, please remember they may be understaffed so you may need to be the one to pursue them. You will probably be required to take one or two training sessions, and you will be given a plan.
Expect to be flexible! There surely will be moments that are confusing, but there also will be moments that are purely joyful.
.(This article was adapted from a blog post that originally appeared on Elsa Johnson’s blog, Life Worth Writing Down)