In 2003, at the beginning of what at times seems like a permanent period of internship/traineeship/fellowship work, I was was intern at Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS), a resettlement agency in New Haven, CT.
Back then, if I remember correctly (that was five and a half years ago, so my memory is a bit fuzzy) the office consisted of four rooms, including the in-office food bank, on the ground floor of a very dark, old building. The then director frowned on mentorship and volunteer programs, because she felt they “indulged” refugees and didn’t teach them “early independence and self-sufficiency.” She actively drove would-be mentors and volunteers away if she felt they were getting “too close” to refugee families. Inviting refugee families to a home-cooked dinner or taking refugee teens to the mall to buy winter coats were no-no’s. My family was scolded for bringing a refugee family to Thanksgiving dinner that year.
I couldn’t understand the director’s mentality, and to this day scratch my head when I think about how she treated her refugee clients. She’s gone now, and IRIS is a much, much bigger organization than it was back when I was there. Today, it has an extensive volunteer program and encourages exactly the kind of hands-on involvement that the former director forbid. I’m so glad. It really brings me joy to see how things have changed at IRIS and how much more is available to refugees resettled in the New Haven area. Also, I see IRIS has a very nice new website. I especially like the flash animation on the homepage. It’s worth a look.