Helping Hands in Idaho

Idaho has a long tradition of welcoming refugees. Boise Mayor Dave Bieter is the grandson of Basque herders and has spoken forcefully about the value refugees and immigrants deliver. “Refugees enrich our city,” he wrote in a highly personal column in the Idaho State Journal. “They are some of the hardest working Boiseans.”

Idaho has been reaching out to modern-day refugees since 1975, when then Governor John Evans established the Indochinese Refugee Assistance Program. About 20,000 refugees have settled in Idaho since. Working with these new Americans is an eclectic mix of secular and faith-based groups, government agencies and non- profits, retirees and college students.

Before the coronavirus hit, Boise was a place where you’d find Mormon, Lutheran, and secular volunteers tutoring Muslim refugees in a synagogue. Methodist and non-denominational volunteers worked together in reading and tutoring programs for refugee children in junior and senior high school. Retired C-suite executives ran economic incubators that not only gave refugees a way to make money but also help them learn English and integrate with the community. Funding came from sources as varied as Zion Bank—the Latter-Day Saints’ bank–and the Idaho Arts Commission.

This has changed with the corona virus. Like most other states, Idaho is under a state-wide stay home order until the end of April.

Like so many, refugee families have been hit with job losses, so Glocal Community Partners, which supports refugees, has been mobilizing volunteers. Nick Armstrong, who heads Glocal with his wife, Laura, has been delivering donated groceries to families. Glocal has partnered with IRC to deliver hygiene kits — shampoo, dish soap, deodorant, tooth brushes, tooth paste, soap, razor, shaving cream, toilet paper–to families. They’re also delivering necessities like diapers and wipies to families with toddlers and babies. Recently, 13 volunteers delivered these kits to 90 families. Families are getting face masks as well.

Glocal and its network of volunteers are also working with families over the phone to help them apply for unemployment.

Boise’s shift in helping refugees in a pandemic shows how refugee resettlement volunteer networks are both flexible and resilient, illustrating the power of grassroots organizations to effect change in their own backyards.

Michelle and Steve Darden pick up kits to be delivered;
above, Tori Burchfield with the kits in her car ready to go.

Simple Ways to Help

The B’Nai Jeshurun Refugee and Immigration Family Support Team in New York City has a few simple ways to help during this pandemic–and has more opportunities coming.

Buy a face mask, or other items made by an embroidery artist from Tajikistan who held a small show in my home last year. You can visit her Etsy site and purchase one of her beautiful scarves. handbags, belts or face masks!

All of the 50 families the committee works are taking advantage of the meals still offered at New York city’s public schools, but some still need to supplement that. Here’s a link to a Target shopping list for one fanily–some items are as little as $5.

Another handsome face mask available on Etsy.

Big Hearts in Hard Times

Back in 2015, which today feels like a century ago, when the world was in the midst of another crisis, with millions of refugees sweeping into Europe. I met an amazing young woman.

Her name is Shoshana Akabas.

We were working together to help newly arrived refugee families get their footing in their new homeland. Shoshana was in her early 20s at the time, a grad student at Columbia who was teaching freshman English, and, on top of all of that, was wrestling with chronic health challenges. Despite all of this, she became the backbone of a Good Neighbor Team program, which is small groups of people from churches, synagogues or other community groups, working to support refugees. She mobilized dozens and dozens of volunteers who were able to help dozens of refugee families. Thanks to Shoshana’s organizational genius, we did everything from driving mothers and kids to doctor’s appointments to buying much-needed items for families through Amazon gift lists. But Shoshana didn’t stop there.

Two years ago, she started another initiative matching New York families with slightly older kids who could pass their gently used clothing on to refugee families with kids who were just a little younger. Her hope for the New Neighbors Clothing Partnership: refugee families would get clothing they needed and the sense that someone cared.

As Covid-19 swept through New York, felling thousands with the illness and hundreds of thousands more with layoffs, Shoshana started calling the roughly 100 families in the program to check on them. They were struggling. But something else was happening. Something to make your heart swell with emotion.

Unasked, she learned, donor families had quietly started doing more for their refugee friends. Besides giving clothing, they were sending groceries, diapers, books and games.

The New York Times ran a letter to the editor Shoshana wrote about this organic wellspring of generosity. In that letter, Shoshana described how the mother of a refugee family recently arrived from Afghanistan sensed Shoshana’s worry and sought to reassure her in a text exchange. She said her New York family had sent her supplies and gently encouraged her and her family to stay inside as much possible.

“Don’t worry,” the mother texted Shoshana. “I am happy.”

If you’d like to help, please visit New Neighbors Clothing Partnership.

A School Copes

What does a school do when its students lack most of the things necessary for remote learning in the midst of a global pandemic? To make the challenge even greater, add in the fact that just as its faculty was getting rolling on a contingency plan that they whipped up over a weekend, an earthquake hit.

That’s the situation at the Utah International Charter School, whose students are mostly refugees and other recent immigrants. Ninety percent of the students here were born outside America. Students speak 30 different “home” languages; a home language is the primary language spoken in students’ homes. Many families have no internet service or an inexpensive internet service that can handle email but not much else. These are people with so little that one family of six has just one small table. That makes it tough for a kid to find a good workspace at home.

About half of the students are capable of using Google Classroom. That means that they have internet service and that they have been in the U.S. long enough to have the technical skills and English language proficiency that they need to study remotely. The other half do not. Most students have been in the U.S. for two or three years. But some have been here far less. The most recent arrivals–two students from Guatemala whose families are seeking asylum here–had spent just two days at school before the schools closed.

Gov. Gary Herbert declared a “soft closure” for all Utah schools on Friday, March 13. That originally meant that students could come to school for meals and for tutoring. But tutoring has since been eliminated.

The principal of the schoool, Angie Rowland (my sister-in-law) and her hardworking faculty have set up a system that will help their students continue to study, albeit at a slower pace. Rowland and her teachers are doing the same balancing act every institution in this nation, from the Federal government on down, is doing: adhering to CDC guidelines while maintaining some services.

Teachers spent that weekend of March 14th and 15th creating study packets for students. They contained reading and writing assignments, math problems and similar school work. Most students came to school to pick up those packets; but faculty delivered the study packets to about a dozen students.

After Salt Lake’s March 18 earthquake, which measured 5.7 on the Richter scale, Rowland had to have the school inspected and the building did pass that inspection.

Originally the school had planned to offer time slots for students come to school to drop off or pick up materials and, if necessary, receive some tutoring. That would have kept the number of students in the school at a small number, but the school has now moved to a completely online model, with teachers working from home. The school continues to give students breakfast and lunch (takeout only), which is common in schools across the nation serving marginalized communities.

It’s not ideal, says Rowland. The school uses a collaborative model; that means a student who is more proficient in English than others but is fluent in Swahili can easily help another Swahili-speaking student who is struggling.

The good news is that more students have internet than expected. So the school is checkin out computers to students who would otherwise have nothing but a cell phone. A counselor is helping families that do not have internet to help them complete applications for internet service.

Teachers are working with students to try to help them with their online work and preparing packets for students who as yet have no computer or internet service.

The state originally shut down schools for two weeks. But last week, the state extended the shutdown to May 1. It’s still tough for students who don’t have anyone at home who can point at a screen and tell them what to click on, Rowland said. But, the good thing is that she, the teachers and the students know that this is how it’s going to operate for at least the next five weeks and can focus on getting everyone up to speed with online learning.

Petition ICE: End Detention Now

The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC), a non-sectarian group, has launched a letter-writing campaign to  the more than 37,000 people currently locked up in ICE detention; many have health conditions that make them dangerously vulnerable to the coronavirus.

The UUSC says that it can’t be business as usual during this pandemic and said it welcomes the fact that federal immigration agencies have suspended some forms of enforcement during the crisis.

Here’s what UUSC says:

The Trump administration needs to hear from us that business-as-usual in this crisis means death for many members of our communities. Every day that ICE continues to confine people in close quarters, they are putting lives at risk. They should immediately release all migrants from detention. Failing that, ICE must at least prioritize the release of people over the age of 65, immunocompromised individuals, and people with asthma or other conditions that increase their vulnerability to the disease.

Please click here to add your name to the letter.

The Pandemic Impact–And How You Can Help!

Life was already hard for refugees. The coronavirus has made it even harder. So resettlement agencies and groups are ramping up efforts to help and doing fundraising to support those efforts.

They’re doing it at the international and local level.

A perfect example at the local level is Canopy NWA in Arkansas, which is asking donors to contribute to  Canopy’s Crisis Relief Fund.  Originally the fund was for families who were just completing their first 90 days in America and needed a few more weeks of financial help on their way to economic self-sufficiency.

With the advent of the coronavirus, Canopy is expanding the fund to help any family experiencing a loss of income due to the virus outbreak. Any disbursements of funds will be accompanied by case management support and employment services to ensure a rapid return to self-sufficiency. 

In New York, the B’nai Jeshurun Refugee and Immigration Committee Family Support Team is working with families who are lost their jobs or lost work because of the virus. The committee has created Amazon wishlists for the family; interested donors can find those wishlists here and here.

At the international level, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) is focusing on crisis zones with especially weak health systems. That’s in places like AfghanistanIraqBurkina Faso and Venezuela.

Its goal with this work:

  • Mitigate and respond to the spread of coronavirus within vulnerable communities
  • Protect IRC staff
  • Continue life-saving programming as much as possible across more than 40 countries worldwide.

The COVID-19 the coronoa virus causes is going to hit refugee camps in war zones like Syria and Yemen are going to hit refugees even harder David Miuliband, president and CEO of IRC said.

The IRC is running an appeal for $30 million to help fund these efforts; you can contribute here.