Helping refugees adapt to U.S.

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By Christine Ledman
Flapjack staff

Megan Schmidt arrives at work each day to a parking lot of over 50 cars containing refugees from around the world awaiting her assistance. Schmidt, a 30-something, is the Health Education/Workforce Development Coordinator at the Refugee RISE Americorps (RISE) in Iowa City, Iowa.

“I have always had a desire to travel and help people,” said Schmidt.
The RISE program operates under the IC Compassion program which is managed by Executive Director Teresa Stecker. In the past refugees were only provided with immigration legal support by volunteer immigration lawyers like Sue Kirk. It was obvious the needs of the refugees were much greater.

“Before the RISE program many of our refugee families were lost in how to live here in the United States and scared,” said Stecker. “The addition of the RISE program has added the needed path to assimilation with language training, and basic skills training which are absolutely needed to thrive here.

“Megan is a ray of sunshine and the refugee population are very appreciative of the support she gives them,” she said.

The refugee population is growing rapidly in Iowa City with estimates of up to 10,000 or more from Sudan, Congo, Somalia, and many other countries.

Schmidt served in the Zigong China for the Peace Corp from 2007 to 2009. During her tour in China she also met her husband. After returning to the United States for two years Schmidt and her new husband moved to Cali Columbia where she led an 8th grade English Department. After four years in Columbia the Schmidt’s made the decision to return to the United States and continue their educations. Schmidt is currently pursuing her Master’s Degree in Public Health. Seven months ago she began her position with the AmeriCorps Vista Rise program.
“We loved living in both China and Columbia but we missed our families and felt we needed to return home,” she said.
Services that are provided to refugees via the RISE program are English as a second language classes, one on one computer training classes, classes to prepare refugees to take the citizenship test, personal finance, and general advocacy such as helping them to find housing and work and general emotional support.

“Many of our refugees are so happy to be here and very appreciative of the one on one service that we provide them and some have returned to us to be volunteers,” she said.

Schmidt explained when refugees are accepted into the United States they initially are assigned primary centers. These centers are non-profit organizations around the country that work with the refugees for ninety days. In this time, they supply temporary housing, clothing, provide classes on United States culture, and English if necessary. After this ninety day period the refugees are basically on their own. Many move to cities that have secondary centers. These centers already have refugees in the area and some type of assistance such as the RISE program.

“It is now that the refugees are struck by how hard it is to live in the United States,” said Schmidt. “There is little if any financial support and finding a job can be very difficult for them.”

Schmidt indicated that working with women and young girls presented the most emotional situations that she had to deal with.

“Many of the women and young girls who come here are victims of violent sexual assaults and finding support for them in their native language is extremely challenging,” said Schmidt.

The majority of the refugees Schmidt works with speak French, Arabic, and several other languages including Zulu. Schmidt is fortunate to have many volunteers from within the refugee community and local volunteers who speak these languages.

There are several situations where not all the family members could afford to leave or were not selected from the camps for a variety of reasons. The families that Schmidt helps are particularly concerned about females left behind, knowing the danger they are in. If the families can raise the necessary money to get them here in order to file for asylum it can speed the process up by several years. The problem is, it can cost up to $15,000 per person to make this happen.

“Unfortunately, because I work for the Federal Government I am not allowed to offer any thoughts on the recently signed executive order on travel restriction,” said Schmidt.

Schmidt also spoke of how difficult adapting to the cultural differences can be for these refugees. Some of them have been in refugee camps for over ten years. Most seem to be comfortable with basic cell phones, but the concept of using the computer for everything such as applying for jobs, taking tests, searching for resources is a daunting task for them.

“There were culture classes at my refugee camp, but once I saw my name on the list to go to the United States all I could think about was my new life and I didn’t understand the importance of what they were teaching us,” said a refugee who asked to be identified as Mally.

A more recent offering of RISE is family matching. RISE is attempting to match local Iowa City families with refugee families of a similar make-up. Mally who is a single mother with three elementary school aged children was matched with a local family. Her match family assisted Mally in getting her children registered for school, signed up for soccer, and realizing the importance of girls going to school.

Schmidt is very excited about this program. The matching families reach out to the refugee families weekly and visit them monthly. This continuity of support is something that Schmidt’s team does not have the resources to do.

“We are in the position to help anyone that comes to us, but if they don’t show up they are on their own and we can only hope that they are doing fine,” said Schmidt.

Many of the refugees are nervous about seeking help especially with needed legal assistance.

“I have noticed that clients who have worked with RISE are more confident when seeking assistance and this confidence is of real value when they are in immigration court seeking extended legal status,” said Kirk.

Schmidt said that every day, every hour brings a new and challenging situation to her desk.

“When I leave at night I am usually exhausted and have the feeling I haven’t done enough to help these people, which is what drives me to come back tomorrow to help again,” said Schmidt.

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