When I answered the phone I immediately recognised the voice - a member of a very large family, that had been helped by the Refugee Network during various periods of stress over more than 12 years. This time there was no anxiety in her voice for any of the extended family, but wonderful news about how so many of them had built on the the help they had received from the Network and had taken advantage of educational opportunities which had put them well on the way to making a success of their lives.
The Network had been particularly anxious about the the 7 children who were of school age when the family first arrived. Besides providing beds, clothing, food and household items, the Network provided special advice to the two oldest daughters and the oldest son, and individual tutoring for three younger sons and a younger daughter, to develop their writing and comprehension skills, and to assist in their understanding of word problems in Math. Two joined the turoring groups that the Network was running for Southern Sudanese refugee children, and two younger ones were doing well once they became old enough for elementary school.
The Network provided boots and uniforms for one high school child to play on the school basketball team and one on the football team, and hired an instrument for the child at junior high school so she could be in the school music program. Once the two oldest girls turned 18 they took jobs and left home, as did the older boy, but he stayed in the area and was a frequent visitor at the family apartment. The two boys who had been tutored both went on to Community College where the football player received help from the Network with books and equipment, and the oldest boy also attended Community College to improve his job skills. He reported that he would not have had the incentive to do that, if he had not received encouragement from the volunteer tutor from the Network, who had been working with his brothers.
The news that most delighted the Network staff and volunteers, was that the junior high school student who had shown such promise, was now a freshman in University. She had been encouraged by the aunt who had telephoned, to carry on her education, and to stay near her mother as support, when her father died recently. The aunt reported that, as a freshman, this daughter was developing into a very self-reliant and capable young woman, and felt sure that the assistance she received from Network volunteers was the firm basis on which her educational success had depended.
As new families arrive, each is visited by Network staff and family members' needs are assessed. It is always so encouraging when we hear of successes that result from our interventions, that set young people on the path to preparing themselves for a brighter future. Without those interventions it is difficult for those who arrive as teenagers with no English language skills to make any headway at school. That makes it very difficult to prevent their dropping out and joining the ranks of the unemployable. It enthuses us when we receive reinforcing phone calls like this one.
Every year the Network impacts the lives of at least 2,000 refugees, of whom 1,333 are under the age of 21. Your involvement makes a huge difference in the successes of those whose lives we touch together. Many many thanks to all of you who have provided support for this program.
We particularly would request your involvement in our effort to raise $3,000 from at least 30 individual donors between 9p.m. on Saturday November 30, 2013, and 8.55p.m. on December 31st (Pacific Time) through our project site on Global Giving. This will make us eligible for consideration by a corporate donor interested in educational opportunities for young people. Since that aspect of our work is the one many of you have told us drew your attention, please let us know how you think we can best reach others like you, who would be enthusiastic supporters of our work. And please encourage your friends and colleagues to look at our project on the Global Giving web site, and help us to reach our December target , of at least $3,000, from at least 30 different donors.
We would love to qualify for a bonus by being one of the top 9 fundraisers in this first-ever year end campaign at Global Giving. Can you help us? Together we can continue to make a major difference in the lives of these new Americans, who face so many hurdles on their way to self-reliance.
Last week, visits to two mothers of new babies gave a new perspective on the complications refugees encounter in their transition to life in a new country. Both mothers had given birth before, but in different countries, and under very different circumstances. The Karen mother, whose previous children had been born in a refugee camp, was overwhelmed by the pre-natal check-ups - something neither had experienced before. The time, the need to arrange transport and translation, and the check-ups themselves were unexpected.
The Sudanese mother was struggling to believe that germs that you cannot see can cause sickness and death. A volunteer from the Refugee Network provided materials, demonstrated more thorough cleaning and storage procedures, especially in the kitchen, and provided containers for storing rice and cereal.
Both mothers were traumatized by having to be in a hospital for the birth. In their experience before coming to the United States, anyone entering a hospital was unlikely to come out alive. The birth process, not assisted by female relatives, was something they could not even imagine. Then they could not leave the hospital without a car seat, even though they did not own a car!
The process of obtaining a birth certificate was also puzzling. They did not know the actual date of birth of any of their previous children, only the season. Now there are check-ups both for the mother and the baby, and a host of new requirements to be adjusted to, as the baby grows.
In these transitions, the presence of trusted guides, supporters, and outreach workers who can translate, makes a huge difference.
Large Arabic-speaking families from Darfur have been among recent refugee arrivals in San Diego. School children frequently arrive with no English, and often with no experience of formal education. If the only language they know does not use our alphabet, where do they begin?
An Episcopal Refugee Network's outreach worker delivering food to a Darfuri family, encountered a ten-year-old who begged to be taught "her ABCs". She had been at school here for five months, but she was in a large class, where everyone else spoke Spanish. She was beginning to pick up some spoken English, but had no way to learn how to read or write. At school, she had been placed in front of a computer, loaded with ESL programs, but she could not read anything on the screen.
The Network had three tutoring groups, which had been running for several years, serving mostly Karen-speaking children. Recently a new group was added for Darfuri high school students. We knew they would need one-on-one help, to understand homework assignments and to catch up on knowledge they would be expected to have. The ten-year-old joined this group and now has the Network's ESL specialist as her special tutor. She glowed with achievement as she took home her book with some of "her ABCs" already mastered, and some words she now knew how to read.
The next week, another ten-year-old, with the same needs joined the group. We expect more junior high school children now, and a new influx of high school children with the start of the new school year, in August. Bhutanese children, with a different language structure, and yet another religious background, will be among them. It is a challenge, requiring variable lesson plans and materials, and willing volunteer tutors, who are good at listening and encouraging. But the rewards are great. As one tutor put it, "Where else do you get to see such a sudden burst of the light of understanding in someone's eyes? And where else do you know so clearly, that someone now really believes he can succeed?"
Our outreach workers collect the children from their schools, in the Network's vans and bring them to tutoring, translate when necessary during tutoring, and drive the children home. They are able to interface with the mothers, most of whom do not yet speak English, and to ensure that family members who need help get what they need.
A big thank you to our donors, who provide necessary funds, and items and services that refugees in transition so greatly need.
We had climbed up the narrow stairwell in a stark concrete box of a building. The apartment was on the 4th floor. I had brought someone with me, who had "never met a refugee", and who registered in her expression, amazement at how different living conditions in this area of the city were from the areas with which she was familiar. There was no sign of a tree or a blade of grass in the whole city block; nowhere to play safely or ride a bike. Even inside the apartment very little light entered through the small window that served the kitchen/sitting room area. I had chosen this family to visit, because, unlike almost all the other newcomers, the mother spoke English quite well. I knew my guest would have lots of questions. The father spoke no English, but watched the proceedings from a chair at the tiny kitchen table. Two children shyly sat at their mother's feet. They showed great interest in the clothing and food we had brought. A third came in from school, bursting in, and then hiding his embarrassment, by leaving to "go next door".
My guest asked about school, and was surprised that the children had to walk a long way to get there. Most of the families in the block did not have a car, and there was no school bus. The idea that if the family members could not walk to any destination, they could not get there, was a revelation. A bus pass was well outside the reach of a new family with only one wage earner at $8 an hour - and riding a bus required English skills and experience still to be gained.The mother described how for most of the new refugees in her group, coming to America, first by car and then by plane, was frightening as they had never ridden in either before. My guest asked our hostess whether she missed the refugee camp, and was amazed when she burst into tears . Yes she missed the camp terribly.;She had lived there for 20 years - since the age of eight. Many of her friends were resettled in other places and she would not see them again. She did not have to worry about having enough money for food or rent there. She did not have to struggle with language, and she knew what the expectations of her were. Living in a city was scary, and unpredictable. She did not know how to keep her children safe here......... That mother now has a full time job and is a leader in her local community, But now that she is working she no longer qualifies for the medical insurance she received when she arrived. She is only one sickness away from not earning enough to cover rent and family food. Her English has improved greatly and she has learned new skills. But until she can find a job that provides her with medical insurance, she is very likely to still need emergency assistance from time to time. She has almost made it across the bridge.
One day, when delivering household goods to a family in City Heights, San Diego, I was met at the curbside by the mother. She smiled broadly, placed a very heavy box of dishes on her head, and bending her knees to clear an overhead bar at the gate, without missing a step, she disappeared up three flights of narrow stairs. I thought, "If I were suddenly set down in her country, in her rural setting, I would totally fail, because I could not carry water or other heavy weights on my head."
Finding out how to survive, and eventually prosper in a new country, requires learning many new skills. Since so many of the refugees we serve speak no English on arrival, and few can read, even in their own language; translation and explanations provided by our 5 employees who were refugees themselves, is vital. The staff are available to the families we serve, by cell phone, even when other official offices are closed: and they call ahead to make sure that children are ready to be picked up for tutoring, or for medical visits, or that someone will be home when a volunteer arrives bringing items that have been requested.
One excellent time for problem solving is when the Network's truck arrives at an apartment complex to distribute fresh fruit and vegetables. There are often family members waiting, with an official notice in hand to show to an outreach worker, to find out what it means, and what they need to do. The photo captures one of these encounters. Our outreach worker explained the letter about the need for some medical tests. She arranged to pick up the family members involved, and to be there to translate, at the appointed time. Bills are also especially puzzling to those who have spent many years in a refugee camp. The teachable moment, like the one in the photo, spreads knowledge to others in the same apartment complex, and also alerts the Network when topics need to be addressed at special group meetings.
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