Starting Over: refugee resettlement in Richmond

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RICHMOND, Va. — Jinan* is many things. Wife. Mother. Hotel employee. Strong. Resilient. Optimistic. Iraqi. Refugee. It’s a rainy March afternoon. Her husband is at work and her children have returned home from school for the day and are studying in their rooms while Jinan sits on her couch with Beth Edelstein, a member of Richmond’s Temple Beth-El. The Jewish temple helped the family settle into Richmond in the months following their arrival to the U.S.

The temple assisted Jinan’s family with language practice and initial transportation. To help her children prepare even more for the upcoming school year, they participated in the temple’s summer camp, where the children were able to makes friends and jump start their English skills.

Before coming to America, Jinan was a stay-at-home mother in Baghdad, where she cared for her three daughters and one son while her husband Hussein worked as an accountant. Now the family resides in a Henrico County townhouse apartment where the youngest children are attending school as Jinan, Hussein* and their oldest daughter, Aya*, now 21, work at a hotel. The family has lived in Virginia for a little over a year, but their journey to come to America took two and a half.

“Jinan is one of the strongest people I know,” Edelstein says as the two women share a smile.

Tensions in Iraq between the Sunni and Shiite denominations of Islam have always existed, and Iraq is one of the regions of the Middle East to have a Shiite majority population. The 2003 invasion in Iraq resulted in an overthrow of Saddam Hussein and a Shiite-dominated government came to power.

Jinan’s family doesn’t believe in discrimination due to different cultural or religious backgrounds. It’s a notion that contributed to their need to leave Iraq.

Hussein had befriended a Sunni coworker who entered their Shiite neighborhood one day and lead to the family receiving death threats.

“Like she’s a Jewish, I’m a Muslim,” Jinan explains as she motions between herself and Edelstein. “Hussein, he’s a Shiite and he worked with a Sunni. And they don’t want that. ‘You should fight each other, not work with each other.’ And Hussein said ‘no he’s a human. I’m a human.’”

Hussein’s friendliness with his coworker was not appreciated and one day when he left for work, Jinan experienced a woman at her front door.

“She had a burka, she covered her face. She said ‘why your husband speak and work with these people? We don’t like them. Tell him we will kill or kidnap one of your children,’” Jinan explains. “When I hear that, I close the door.”

Jinan had not been feeling safe for some time. She recalled an afternoon when Hussein had gone to the store shortly before an explosion in their neighborhood. When he didn’t return immediately she and her children feared he had been killed. According to Hussein, a neighbor had pulled him aside to talk and it likely saved his life. On another occasion, their only son, Jaafar, 14, had been playing outside with friends when he was injured by a nearby explosive in a trash can.

In Oct. 2014, Jinan’s family relocated to Istanbul, Turkey where they spent two and a half years during their process of being vetted as refugees to enter America. Jinan claims Turkey doesn’t provide much for refugees and while she loved the scenery, culture and food of the country, she is glad to have made it to America. Of her first thoughts coming to the U.S., Jinan feels that her “children have a future and her family will be safe.”

*Only the first names of the family are used in this story to protect their privacy.

 

Refugees + Resources = A New Life

 

The Virginia Department of Social Services has contracts with various organizations that work to bring refugees into the state. Those organizations include the International Rescue Committee, Commonwealth Catholic Charities, Church World Service, Lutheran Social Services of the National Capital Area, and the Catholic Charities Diocese of Arlington. IRC worked to bring Jinan and her family to Virginia prior to Temple Beth-El’s involvement.

According to Harriet Kuhr, the Executive Director of Virginia’s IRC offices in Charlottesville and Richmond, the refugee screening and vetting process happens outside of IRC. The resettlement agency steps in when they’ve been contacted that a family is cleared and ready to arrive.

“You know that case theoretically is coming to your office, but you still don’t know when,” Kuhr explained. “Usually it’s a couple of months out — it could be shorter, it could be longer.”

Once a refugee’s case is all sorted out and they’re travel ready, organizations like IRC are contacted again to coordinate the rest of the resettlement process.

IRC is one of nine national resettlement agencies in the U.S. Others include Church World Service, Ethiopian Community Development Council, Episcopal Migration Ministries, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, Lutheran Immigrant and Refugee Service, U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, World Relief, and United States Conference of Catholic Bishops/Migration and Refugee Services.

“We get involved in the planning for their arrival and their arrival,” Kuhr aid. “When the refugees are coming up through the system and they’re getting travel-ready their cases get pushed over to the U.S. and assigned to one of the nine networks.”

Once cases have been assigned to the national organizations, then they are distributed to various local offices. According to Kuhr, IRC is one of the few non-faith based organizations and it is the second largest after the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

According to state data, refugees in Virginia are placed in Charlottesville, Fredericksburg, Harrisonburg, Roanoke, Northern Virginia and of course, Richmond.

Kuhr said that once IRC is contacted about a family’s arrival confirmation, that’s when the office “springs into action” because it needs to find housing for the incoming family.

“That’s the first big concern. We have to find housing for them,” Kuhr said. “We learn about the family. They’re coming on such and such day, they have this many people in the family, this is the composition of the family. They need this many bedrooms, or they’ve got grandma in a wheelchair with them so we need a first floor apartment.”

Kuhr says IRC then spends that time before the refugees arrive securing housing. The day they arrive IRC has a staff member to meet them at the airport and escort them to their new home.

“They [refugees] have to walk into an apartment that’s been completely furnished,” Kuhr explained. “The state department has a list of what has to be in the apartment. So minimally furnished. There has to be food in the refrigerator. There has to be a ready-to-eat meal waiting for them so they can sit down and eat as soon as they arrive. They’re usually very tired.”

Kuhr said the first few weeks refugees are stateside is a “flurry” of appointments as they have to go to social services to apply for benefits, have health screenings through the health department, apply for social security numbers, register children for school, along with orientation meetings with IRC staff.

“The first few weeks take up a lot of that, and then it’s ‘time to get a job, time to get a job, time to get a job,’” Kuhr said. “That’s the biggest thing in helping the family become economically self-sufficient to support themselves.”

The goal is for this to happen within the first three to six months.

IRC has employment offices to help refugees find a place that is suitable for them to work. They also offer English language classes.

Kuhr explained that sometimes former refugees have gone on to give back and work for resettlement agencies as interpreters.

“Bilingual language capacity is helpful,” Kuhr said. “A lot of people might start at an entry level and work their way up.”

Kuhr has bounced around various IRC offices — such as Atlanta, Ga. and Charlottesville, Va. — and feels her work with the organization has sucked her in.

“When I first started, it was not my intention to stay here very long,” Kuhr said. “I didn’t have this grand idea to rescue refugees, but once I started working, I got pulled in and I think that happens with people a lot. You’re also working in this very multicultural environment so not only your clients, but your colleagues are coming from different countries and backgrounds.”

While IRC is more closely in touch with refugees during their first year stateside, they can reach out to the organization for various services for up to three to five years. There are also non-settlement nonprofit organizations geared towards providing additional assistance that collaborate with the agencies, but also operate independently.

 

Reestablishing Richmond

 

Uprooting one’s life and being transplanted to a new country is not easy. There are various barriers such as language, laws, and cultural differences, but one of the most apparent challenges initially is transportation.

According to Laura Jones, a refugee outreach coordinator at Reestablish Richmond, her organization does a lot of advocacy for refugees at the Department of Motor Vehicles. There are also bus orientation classes to familiarize refugees with bus schedules, routes, and procedures in Richmond.

“We do a lot of connecting refugees to resources to help them take the next step towards self-sufficiency,” Jones said. “One of the biggest gaps in service for them and one of the biggest obstacles to self-sufficiency is transportation so that’s why we focus so heavily on learner’s permit preparation.”

It is for this reason that Jones teaches driver’s education classes to refugees among the many other hats she wears working for the organization.

“The test is available in 22 different languages besides English,” Jones explained. “There’s an auditory option, where you can press a button and listen on a phone to a recorded voice reading the questions and answer choices. But the online practice questions are only available in English.”

If the test is failed three times then people are required to pay a local driving school and go back in order to continue. According to Jones, this is not ideal for a family when they are in the midst of adjusting to so many new life experiences, and often financially struggle to make ends meet.

A lot of times as refugees begin their new lives in America, they have to “start from zero.” Certain career fields and schooling don’t always transfer so easily from country to country.

“We’ve got doctors working at 7 Eleven,” Jones said. “They have to feed their families and they have to pay their rent.”

Jinan, her husband, and her oldest daughter had never driven when they lived in Baghdad due to the metropolitan nature of the city. It wasn’t until they arrived in the sprawling and rolling hills of Richmond that they needed to drive.

According to Jinan, her husband was determined and took to driving very well. Currently, she and her husband have a license while their oldest daughter has a permit and they all share one car.

Jinan and her family, which were initially aided by Temple Beth- El, did not receive direct assistance from Reestablish Richmond. The organization is not a resettlement agency, but rather a non-profit organization that picks up where agencies like IRC leave off to offer further resource connections and adjustment assistance to refugees who wish to connect with them.

Board member Rick Hanson and research development volunteer Helen Rai work in Reestablish Richmond’s small office in Scott’s Addition.

“We try to connect refugees to resources in the community. We’re also training community volunteers to connect back to refugees,” Jones said. “So providing a mentor for families that need that extra assistance, just somebody checking in on a weekly basis. We train folks to work with people as English tutors, not necessarily as a teacher, but just to provide conversation practice, or if they’re already enrolled in a class to practice for their homework.”

Jones said that sometimes the resettlement process can take longer for some people. While resettlement agencies play a primary role in setting up residence, education and work for refugees over several months, some refugees will reach out to Reestablish Richmond after the initial resettlement period.

Other times, the organization has received referrals from resettlement agencies or within the refugee community.

“They will meet someone who has newly arrived and then because we’ve helped them, they’ll say ‘what you need to do is call Reestablish Richmond.’”

Though the organization was born out of Tabernacle Baptist Church in 2010, it operates as a secular nonprofit. According to Jones, it was started as “a way to help fill the gaps in initial service,” and to provide ongoing services.

Jones said at that time there were only two resettlement agencies operating in Richmond — Commonwealth Catholic Charities and Church World Service. Also, at that time, many refugees had entered the U.S. while fleeing from religious conflicts, so Reestablish Richmond made a conscious choice to establish itself as being non-faith-based.

“That frees us and really enables us to cooperate with any faith group,” Jones said. “So in terms of our partnerships and in terms of our volunteer base, we have everybody from Temple Beth-El to the Unitarian Universalist Church.”

Part of Reestablish Richmond’s efforts to aid refugees in adjusting to their new lives and living in a new culture is to connect refugees back to their roots wherever possible. That’s why the organization partnered with Shalom Farms in order for certain refugees to participate in the crops and take home some of the produce.

Shalom Farms, located just outside of Richmond, works to bring healthy produce to various families around Richmond and often utilizes volunteer work from local community members to help make that happen.

“One of our team members is connected with someone who was trying to organize some folks from the Bhutanese group of refugees to find someone to go and help harvest their cover crop,” Jones said. “It’s just a crop that they plant to kind of put some nutrients back in the ground before the growing season and there’s no market for that particular thing here. It turns out that particular thing was a type of radish that was a staple for the Bhutanese folks that they can’t get normally here. It’s something that is near and dear to dietary preferences.”

Reestablish Richmond also trains some volunteers to be able to provide conversation practice to refugees who need it.

Jones said that additional language practice whenever possible can be very helpful to refugees. Self-sufficiency is an ultimate goal for refugees and the organizations that aid them.

While the resettlement agencies have their own employment assistance programs to find work for refugees, Reestablish Richmond can also assist refugees with locating work.

“Sometimes after that [initial resettlement] period is over they may be eligible for services for employment longer than the initial three to six months,” Jones explained. “Sometimes folks will still reach out to us and request assistance in some way.”

The organization has also recently collaborated with IRC to train community health promoters. According to Jones there are currently three women involved (who speak Rwandan, Nepali, and Arabic — respectively).

“We did a training program to prepare them to work very closely with the health liaison and the IRC to provide support for families as they navigate the healthcare process,” Jones said. “We help them take that step in front of them so that maybe the next step they can take on their own.”

Jones also spoke of programs to improve the health of certain refugees. In her experience, often times women from certain countries who are culturally used to being the center of a household and remaining at home must abruptly adjust to working many hours a week in order to receive income and social aid benefits whilst retaining their matriarchal roles in the home. The sudden lifestyle shift can be physically jarring.

“They will tell me they are stressed and tired,” Jones said as she recounted a particular woman whose doctor had prescribed her medication that she felt wasn’t working.

With a more holistic approach, the organization has partnered with Richmond’s Humble Haven Yoga Studio to offer weekly yoga classes.

Reestablish Richmond is in the process of transferring client files from paper to a database, but Jones estimates the organization has worked with over 120 individuals in 2017.

 

To Resources & Beyond

 

In March 2018, the IRC and Cultural Orientation Resource Exchange partnered to release a mobile application called Settle In. CORE provides cultural orientation materials and courses to resettlement agencies. The new app is designed to be an personalized resource that refugees and agency workers can utilize for additional information and interactivity.

Currently, Settle In, which is available all over the U.S., operates in English and Arabic (with plans to incorporate several more languages throughout the course of the year). Virginia State Department data indicates a higher number of people have resettled from Iraq and Afghanistan than other countries, but not all of that number reflects refugees specifically.

The legal term “refugee” refers to someone who has fled their homeland because they have faced persecution and assorted vulnerabilities. While that is true for families like Jinan’s, many Iraqi or Afghan people who have resettled have done so under “special immigrant visas.”

These are people who have aided the U.S. in some way, such as people who served as interpreters during America’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. When special immigrant visa holders arrive, they receive a lot of the same provisions as refugees, but they can apply for a green card immediately (whereas traditional refugees have to wait longer).

As refugees and special immigrant visa holders enter the country, CORE aims to enhance resource options through its website, assistance with resettlement agencies and now the mobile app.

“No matter what your digital literacy or literacy in general literacy is, there’s something there that you can learn,” said Carmel Pryor, a Digital Initiatives Officer. “It’s taking what can be complicated information and a lot of condensed information and turning it into something that is more interactive than what you would get otherwise.”

Available for free download on Google Play and the App Store, Settle In is a tool for refugees to take interactive courses on cultural orientation while keeping track of personal progress.

“I like that it provides refugees with the opportunity to learn at their own pace and getting a feeling that it’s rewarding. I like that you can track your progress,” Pryor said. “I like that when you complete a lesson you are congratulated for that so it kind of reinforces that you are the refugee learning this information on your own, so it’s also self-empowering and helps to reinforce the goal of becoming self-sufficient.”

An introduction page upon first downloading Settle In.

CORE takes a user-centered approach to its technologies. Settle In, underwent a phase where interviews were conducted with refugees and they were able to test the application’s prototype.

Pryor said CORE used the feedback to determine “if the direction we were going in was right, and if it wasn’t right, what could be changed. All of our products were created with the users in mind.”

Pryor says that cell phone — be they standard or smartphones — are like lifelines to refugees with regards to staying closely connected immediately during the resettlement process.

“What resettlement agency staffs will do a lot of the time is they will build partnerships with a local mobile network vendor,” Pryor said. “I’ve heard through that partnership that sometimes maybe they’ll get a discount on phones or sim cards. There isn’t a formalized way across all resettlement agencies that phones are purchased or distributed, but it’s definitely something that resettlement staffs support refugees obtaining within the first I’d say week. It’s also a lifeline in terms of staff staying connected with their clients.”

In a little over a month since the app’s launch, it has garnered more than 300 downloads. Pryor said CORE is currently employing engagement strategies to targeted audiences.

Users have a profile page that directs them to information they need to know and rewards badges upon completion of lessons.

“It’s not so much getting everyone and their mom to download the app, it’s really doing targeted engagement strategies specifically with refugees that are resettling into the U.S.,” Pryor explained.

Pryor also explained that there’s been encouragement for resettlement staff to download the app as well to supplement interactions and teaching.

“We have ideas where the mobile app can be used as maybe a game during instruction or maybe as homework and trainers can talk about it with refugees in class the next day, or case workers could use it when they’re doing cultural orientation work in the home or when they’re at a bank talking about money management,” Pryor said. “There’s all sorts of ideas that we have around disseminating information and how the mobile app can be used in real life situations between resettlement staff and refugees themselves.”

Meanwhile, Jinan and her family continue to immerse themselves into their new lifestyles. Her children are about to have completed their first full academic year in American schooling, with one daughter prepared to move up a grade, and her son looking forward to being more engaged in Temple Beth-El’s summer camp.

Jinan expressed occasional loneliness at work, where other immigrant coworkers do not speak her native language and little English. She has attempted to befriend some Syrian neighbors. After a little more than a year in America, she is still settling in.

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