The refugees JFCS helps resettle all come through a U.S. government resettlement program. Our job is to meet people at the airport, find them housing and jobs, connect them to local resources and help them meet all their requirements and paperwork. But for JFCS Refugee and Immigrant Services, welcoming newcomers to our region has always been a labor of love that goes far beyond the government’s requirements.
Our caseworkers furnish apartments, stock the kitchen with appropriate food, help schedule doctors’ appointments, job interviews, and ESL classes; make sure the kids get enrolled in school, ride the bus around the city with them, and much more – for as long as they are needed.
JFCS has also created several programs that follow and help refugees build a life, go to college, return to skilled professions, experience the great things our region has to offer, and of course, have fun!
But there is another level of help that perhaps no agency can provide. Years ago, JFCS realized the value of refugee communities helping each other, and the Refugee/Immigrant Support Group Program was born.
From its humble beginnings, the program has grown to support 73 different peer-led community groups. Group leaders are members of the community who take training in leading a group, group dynamics, conflict resolution and recordkeeping. There have been community support groups of people from Ghana, Bhutan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Turkey, Korea, Iraq and Latin America. There are groups for youth, parents, men and women. Issues that come up in any group are widely varied: some learn English, some focus on yoga or meditation, some exchange resources or schedule speakers. People may attend for any number of reasons, or seek help with whatever issues they might encounter. Newer arrivals are helped by those who have been here longer.
“These support groups provide a safe place where there are people who speak the same language, understand the mixed emotions of moving to a new country, and have useful advice based on the same experiences,” says Yesmina Salib, the staffer who helps organize the groups and monitors the program for JFCS. “There’s a comfort level and a natural trust in the idea of getting assistance – and acceptance – from a community of people who know where you came from and what you’re going through. These groups are truly peer-led; JFCS helps lay all the groundwork, but the groups themselves decide what they want to do and which issues that are important to them.”
The Turkish women have started a catering business, Kardelens Catering Services and an Etsy page, Kardelens Fiber Arts, to sell handmade crafts. The Korean group are mostly seniors and are taking ukulele lessons so that they can sing Korean songs together. Yesmina has just started laying the groundwork for a new Chinese group that will be meeting in Mt. Lebanon, probably starting in the fall.
These peer-led support groups reintroduce a sense belonging to people who have generally experienced years of alienation from their homeland and/or living in refugee camps. At the same time the groups are vital community resources that help newcomers turn the page and embrace their new life as Americans.
Community building of all kinds strengthens connection and understanding between people, no matter their history or country of origin. And facilitating success and acceptance in the refugee and immigrant communities feeds the success and prosperity of our entire region.