Positive changes

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.

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3 thoughts on “Positive changes

  1. I volunteered with a Red Cross refugee unit a while back in Europe, which took a similar stance to your ex-director, though for very different reasons. Talk of ‘indulging’ refugees sounds crazy, but for the Red Cross it was a matter of maintaining professional boundaries; having to ensure the safety (from a ‘legal’ sense as much as anything) of volunteers and aslyum seekers/refugees, particualrly when working with unaccompanied minors and women; and, as a ‘humanitarian’ agency, not getting overly involved with people we were only supposed to be working with for short times, not ‘mentoring’ them. It’s not what a lot of volunteers wanted, but it was dealt with very proffessionally I thought, and worked well without lossing anything in the way of compassion.

    I have also seen organisations where this was not the case and where very strong relationships have developed between volunteers and refugees. In some cases this can be fantastic, and both sides benefit enermously. In other examples though, things can get very strained and put both parties in a difficult situation. A difficult balance to get right I guess.

  2. Thanks for that perspective, Harry. I understand what you mean.

    In the U.S., it’s different for a few reasons:

    1) Refugee resettlement is underfunded and services are generally provided through poorly staffed NGOs, or faith-based organization located in the communities refugees are sent to. To grossly oversimplify, refugees arrive with nothing but their IOM bags and the local resettlement office, whatever its capacity, has to take over from there. Without volunteers and mentors, it’s a mess. Kids don’t get to school, no one gets to the doctor –a mess.

    2) Resettlement staff work with their clients long-term, so it’s more a specialized kind of social work than humanitarian work in the traditional sense. Staff and refugees alike usually live in the same community –literally. One of my former roommate’s asylum clients lived in the house directly across the street. She saw him and his wife walking their kids to school every day.

    3) As you probably know well, there is little resembling a social safety net in the United States. Resettlement office staff become social workers for the refugee communities in their area of responsibility, doing everything from making sure elderly refugees are eating to unclogging toilets. I will never forget my interview with the resettlement office I left in September. I was dragged out to a horrendous wreck of a house soon to be inhabited by a Burmese family, and director asked me questions while she used a plunger to unclog a toilet. Several months later, I, too, had the privilege of unclogging stopped up plumbing. For a lovely Burmese family. They were quite embarrassed.

    4) The entire process is just a shitshow, really, and needs to be completely overhauled. The IRC does an admirable job, but almost everyone else really, really struggles. There are plenty of horror stories, like one I know to be true: a Congolese family of eleven arrived in the middle of the summer. The overburdened, understaffed local resettlement office placed them in the only house that could be rented with the inadequate funds provided through the Resettlement and Placement program — a house that should have been condemned. Half a dozen windows were missing, the bathroom was broken, the porch was falling in, vermin and insects abounded, the back yard was full of trash and broken glass, and water poured through the ceiling any time someone took a shower.

    It doesn’t help that refugees are routinely resettled in the poorest and most crime-ridden areas, because housing is cheap and oversight is lacking.

    I could go on and on.

    I love working with refugees, and I wish this country served them better. The best I can do, though, is try to improve the resettlement services in the region I live in.

  3. I hear ya.

    In the UK most services are contracted out to NGOs or CBOs as well, but I guess there is a basic level of state provision that doesn’t exist in the US. Doesn’t feel like much when you spend months trying to register someone for a doctor, but still. And to access state services such as housing, aslyum seekers often have to accept to be resettled in particualrly impoversished areas. Many choose not to to stay close to their own networks in London etc, but are then out on the street on relying on the refugee community.

    A shitshow as you say, and I could rant for hours.

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