Story by Lyndsey Schley
Volunteer Marissa Dove drove up to the North Hill house on a rainy morning. She volunteers with World Relief Akron, a local refugee agency, and had stopped to pick up a Bhutanese-Nepali family that had just arrived in the United States a few days prior.
The father, mother and two young boys were running late, like so many families with young kids. The youngest was crying. He had gotten sick overnight. They climbed into the SUV and Dove helped get him into the car seat. His mother rubbed his legs to comfort him as they drove downtown.
The father carried a white plastic bag from the International Organization for Migration. Dove said these bags contain all the family’s important personal documents.
“They’ll hold that bag close because it’s so precious,” Dove said.
Despite the hiccups, they still arrive to the Social Security office before it opens, as planned.
Not that the morning was without its challenges. The youngest boy went to the bathroom while his father was trying to find out what in his pockets was setting off the metal detectors at security. The child needed to be changed before they got up to the office, but everything was settled by the time an employee announced the building was open.
After checking in, they took a seat in the waiting room. Dove called the family’s case worker to plan a doctor’s visit for the youngest boy. He was now asleep in his father’s arms.
English and Nepali were not the only languages spoken in the waiting room. Other people spoke among themselves in various languages.
An employee called the family back and Dove accompanied them. In the office, a phone interpreter helped them with the visit. The Social Security office entered the family’s information so they could receive their Social Security cards in 10 to 14 days.
In the waiting room, a man questioned the woman he came with why so many people are not speaking English. She replied that they may not know it.
They leave, still carrying the white bag and the sleeping child. Dove drives them home so she can go to work. They exit the car and say “Namaste”, which can mean both hello and goodbye. Dove does the same.
These are the kinds of interactions World Relief Akron volunteers have every day with refugees.
New Branch, Experienced Organization
World Relief Akron is one of the newest branches of World Relief, an international, Christian refugee-assistance organization. While the Akron location opened about two years ago, World Relief has been working with refugees for more than 70 years.
World Relief Akron Office Director Kara Ulmer said as of September of 2015, the branch has resettled about 180 refugees.
Refugee agencies receive $925 per refugee from the government to help with the 90-day resettlement process. This includes signing kids up for school, medical screenings and English as a Second Language classes.
Refugees also receive cash assistance, Medicaid and food assistance for eight months if they have no minors or until their income increases enough. Ulmer said they often find employment within their first 30 days.
However, Ulmer said this only goes so far when one considers how little the refugees own.
“I would say every one of the 180 people who have come through have come through with one duffel bag or less,” Ulmer said. “So, refugees are literally coming to the States with nothing.”
They handle these needs with three full-time staffers, two part-time case workers and interns. World Relief reaches out to local churches and the community for volunteers and donations to continue funding their work and to handle some everyday needs of refugees.
What Makes a Refugee?
Refugees are defined by the U.N. as someone fleeing conflict or persecution.
“Refugees don’t want to leave their homes,” Ulmer said. “They literally cannot stay under threat of death or persecution. Refugees have no [bad intentions] toward America at all when they come. They’ve been waiting and wanting to come here.”
Refugees often have to wait about 17 years outside of their home country to be resettled.
Before a refugee is accepted into the U.S., they go through a rigorous screening process that takes 18 to 24 months.
“It includes medical screenings,” she said. “It includes them telling their story multiple times to multiple sources for cross-referencing. They go through a significant level of U.N. and then U.S. State Department security checks.
The U.S. currently accepts 75,000 refugees a year, with a special program for an additional 10,000 Syrian refugees a year. However, since the president has the power to set the number and Congress has the power to cap it, Ulmer said there may be changes with the next administration.
“So, if a president said ‘I want to bring in 200,000’, congress could say ‘Actually, we’re only going to bring in 100,000’,” She said. “Or if the president said ‘We’re not bringing in any refugees’ then congress won’t raise it.”
The anti-refugee political slant of some politicians has created emotional responses to her job, Ulmer said. Her agency has received hate mail and hate comments on Facebook, but the response has not all been negative.
“We are finding that the election has provoked equally negative and positive responses,” she said. “We have had several people from the community come forward to volunteer, encourage and affirm us in this work as their own response to the election.”
About 85 percent of refugees the group has resettled are Nepali-Bhutanese. This group was thrown out from their homes in Bhutan by the ethnic majority, Ulmer said.
They have also resettled Congolese people, Iraqis and ethnic minorities from Burma. They welcomed their first 10 Syrian refugees in July.
World Relief Staffers and Volunteers
Volunteers give time and items
World Relief offers various ways for volunteers to help out. One way to volunteer is driving refugees to appointments. Ulmer said refugees have many required appointments in their first 30 days in the U.S. and navigating a foreign bus system with often limited grasp of the language can be a major challenge.
Taking a refugee to these appointments not only helps the refugee but also allows the volunteer to have real human interactions with the families.
“Often, what will happen is the family will invite them in for tea, they’ll try to feed you,” Ulmer said. “You get this experience of being in a refugee’s home. The other thing I really love about that is that so often when you’re doing charity of services you’re like standing behind a table, handing something to someone else.”
Other teams furnish homes so they are ready when refugees arrive.
“They’ve been living in a tent for who knows how long. Or the Bhutanese that come are living in a bamboo hut they made,” she said. “So it’s kind of like being in a place where you get to be the person who’s setting up their first home in America, to write them a card or to put like a toy on the kid’s bed or make the bed up or the tablecloth on the kitchen table is kind of cool.”
Toys adorn beds prepared for young refugees by volunteers.
A more involved way to volunteer is by joining a Good Neighbor Team. These teams of six to 10 people, often from a church or collection of churches, commit to helping a family for their first six months here. Not only do they take them to appointments and help to navigate local systems, but they also interact and give them a sense of community.
“[They] just invite them over to their homes and have American food for dinner, draw with their kids or take them to the park, things you just take for granted,” Ulmer said.
World Relief Akron conducts a training session to prepare volunteers to help new refugees.
World Relief Akron also accepts donations. Along with cash donations, its website has Amazon wish lists of items their families need.
“If a family is coming and they only have a duffle bag, they’re not going to have cleaning materials for their house or a broom or a dust pan,” she said. “So churches have provided probably 85 percent of those materials for the refugees we’ve resettled.”
Dove said volunteering has allowed her to learn more about the different cultures that make up her community.
“I always learn something every time I’m with somebody,” she said “Like just realizing how hard it is when you can’t speak to somebody. I learn just a little bit about their culture every time, especially when you go into their house and you realize the smells are a lot different than what you would be used to.”
She said interacting with refugees is a great way to get an understanding of them.
“The people who are making these comments about refugees, they’ve never interacted with them,” Dove said. “They don’t know them. You get to know them, you see that they’re people and that immediately takes the stigma out of it.”
Ulmer said refugees need community support in these uncertain times.
“I am thankful to be in Akron, an official Welcoming Community, where so many people are compassionate toward their neighbors,” she said. “Support from the community includes allowing access to resources and to healing, healthy relationships with others. I believe it is important, more than ever, to intentionally welcome our neighbors and include them in our community.”
For more information: www.worldreliefakron.org/