Here are 10 ways we are making a difference:
1) Providing a trustworthy place for newcomers to find answers to the questions they face in their daily lives
Over the past 6 months, over 100,000 visitors have used the Refugee Center Online’s website to help them rebuild their lives in the United States. Our Resources section helps newcomers learn about American systems, adjust to American culture, and find resources to further their educations and help them find jobs or move to living wage employment. Our 5 most visited pages are: 1) Understanding American Culture; 2) Scholarships for Refugees and Immigrants; 3) Rights and Laws in the United States; 4) Family Reunification (bringing one’s family to the U.S. after resettlement) and 5) Online English Language Learning resources. Most of our users are between the ages of 18 and 45 and they come from all 50 states.
One of the most common requests the RCO receives is for information on scholarships for newcomers. This isn’t surprising because most newcomers when they arrive in the U.S say that their most important goal for themselves and their families is to “get an education.” Felix, a 17-year-old refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo is already looking for scholarships for next year and was delighted when he heard from the RCO about a new scholarship opportunity from GoGo Charter. “Knowing there are opportunities like this scholarship make me believe I can succeed,” said Felix.
2) Preparing future American Citizens
We currently have 2,000 active learners enrolled in our free U.S. Citizenship Exam Preparation Class. Every learner who has completed the course has also passed the final practice quiz at above the rate they would need to pass their civics exam during the naturalization process. For the actual civics exam, there are 100 total potential questions. Newcomers must answer a random mix of 10 of those questions and get at least six right to pass. One feature of our class is that the final practice quiz consists of all 100 actual questions with 10 randomly generated questions on each quiz. Students take the quiz as many times as they need. Our initial data showed that, of those who have completed the course, already over 40% have become U.S. citizens.
One new U.S. citizen said, “The Citizenship class taught me a lot about American History. I was trying to study just the questions and answers before I found the Citizenship class, but it wasn’t sticking in my head. The Citizenship class teaches the history and then it asks you the questions. I found that having read about the history I found it easier to answer the questions and remember the answers because I knew what I was talking about then. I learned a lot by using the Citizenship class.”
3) Connecting newcomers to resources: “In Your City”
The RCO’s In Your City Database is a unique database built just for newcomers. It is a searchable tool that is easy to use and helps link newcomers to services and programs in their communities, both urban and rural. Across the United States there are many amazing on-the-ground organizations doing important work to welcome newcomers, help them find employment, and support their basic needs, yet research shows that newcomers are often unaware of these services and vastly under-utilize existing resources. The RCO created In Your City to overcome this problem and help connect newcomers to existing sources of support.
Fatima, a refugee from Sudan, recently moved to a small town in the Midwest to start a new job. She had initially been resettled in a large city, but could not afford to live in the city on her minimum wage job. She moved to a rural community because a family member told her she would be better able to support herself. Fatima was nervous to move somewhere without many services for refugees. “I could not believe it when I found the RCO tool and found a small shop that sells Halal meat,” said Fatima. Fatima also used the database to find a low-cost health clinic near her house where she could take her son. “I searched and found a doctor I could walk to with my son,” she said.
4) Easing Fears after the Executive Order
Within 24 hours of the Executive Order, the RCO put together simple explanations of the Order and had them translated into 16 languages. Over 20,000 individuals viewed these pages and organizations working with refugees around the country printed the translations and gave them out. This helped ease the terrible fears of newcomers, many of whom did not understand the EO(s) and were afraid they were going to be forced to leave the United States. Some of the most visited pages were the ones translated into languages that are very hard for newcomers to find: Karen, Nepali, and Dari, for example.
Poe, a refugee from Burma, wondered if the Executive Order targeted Karen refugees. “It felt like we were being targeted by the government again, this time just for being refugees,” said Poe. Poe looked to the Refugee Center Online to find information for him and his friends. “I have a friend who had gone to Thailand to see his mother because she was sick,” said Poe. “But he was very worried he could not get back into the U.S” since the ban was announced while he was abroad. Poe found the information he needed on the Refugee Center Online website, in Karen language, so that he could help his friend.
“He [Poe’s friend] felt much better after he read and understood the information in our Karen language. There was no other place to find information in Karen. This is a time when many of us [refugees] are scared and confused. We are glad to have a place to find the information we need,” said Poe.
5) Keeping Newcomers Safe
In partnership with Church World Service (CWS), the RCO has created numerous resources to ensure newcomers are aware of their rights and are trained to respond to threats and racism. Together, RCO and CWS created simple written Know Your Rights materials, translated into languages spoken by refugees and immigrants. We then hosted two webinars to train newcomers, focusing on those groups being targeted right now through the proposed travel ban. Following recent acts of violence aimed at newcomers, we also created language-appropriate materials to train newcomers how to respond to threats or racist comments.
Omar, a refugee from Somalia, said: “This information is really important for our communities right now. My mother and sister are often targeted because they wear headscarves. This information helped them better understand what they can do and helped them feel safe.”
6) Creating environments for all students to succeed in our schools
In partnership with Ontario 8c School District and with support from the Oregon Community Foundation, the RCO piloted our Educating Refugee and Immigrant Students online professional development course with 15 educators, administrators, and school professionals. Ontario 8c School District had seen a surge in new refugee students, a population they had little or no training for. Fortunately, the District was committed to helping their teachers and staff gain the necessary skills to help meet the unique needs of their newcomer students. Participants completed our 6-unit pilot course, gaining knowledge of how to work with English Language Learners, how to support students dealing with trauma, and practical strategies to modify their curriculum and create welcoming spaces. 100% of participants enrolled in the pilot program said they would both recommend the course to another educator and that they had already implemented something they learned from the course.
McKenzie, one of the educators in the pilot program said, “I loved the focus on student assets and highlighting them in the classroom…the information is applicable to refugee students but really, to ALL students in my class.”
7) Training communities to Welcome our Newest Neighbors
RCO offers a free, two-hour online course to train community members to better interact, volunteer and work with newcomers. The course is a great tool for on-the-ground organizations who can use it to prepare volunteers and employees, as well as for any community member who simply wants to understand how to best interact with their newest neighbors. The course was featured in a New York Times article. Those who take the course self-report better understandings of the resettlement process, more confidence in their abilities to interact in cross-cultural environments, and a better idea of how to support individuals who have fled war, violence, and other trauma.
“This course gave me a better insight on not only the process refugees must go through, but also all of the trauma and challenges they must face when arriving to a new country. It also gave me knowledge on how to understand and gain cross-cultural communication skills.” -Lisette, one of the individuals who completed the course and a refugee family mentor in her own community.
8) Nurturing and supporting newcomer leaders
One important value of the RCO is to respect and celebrate the wealth of experience newcomers bring with them to the United States. The RCO is committed to having a Board of Directors that is at least half newcomers as we have found it’s important to have a balance of newcomers and American-born board members. This allows us to learn from one another and enriches the leadership of the organization with many different perspectives. Our former board chair was a refugee from Bhutan and our current Board Vice Chair is a refugee from Sudan. All of our newcomer board members bring tremendous experience and understanding of the needs of newcomers, as well as the ability to speak for and support their communities. The RCO’s Refugee Technology and Advisory Board members not only provide input on needs of their communities and usability of our website, but also receive leadership training and participate in decision making with our board.
Mohy Omer not only serves on the RCO’s board but is also a delegate to the United States Refugee Congress. “I serve on the RCO’s Board because this is the exact resource I wish had existed when I was resettled to the United States – a single place to find all of the information I needed. I am incredibly grateful to be a part of this organization and to work with such a tremendous, committed team.” Mohy believes being a good leader means continually asking yourself why you are here and what the deeper reason is for dedicating one’s time to a cause. “We are all here because we truly care about the mission of the RCO and to provide refugees with information and resources they need to succeed,” said Mohy at the RCO’s recent Board Meeting in New York.
9) Helping newcomer moms finish high school
The RCO’s GED preparation program is a free online class to help refugees finish their high school educations and earn high school equivalency diplomas. It took us longer than we expected to build our curriculum because of the intense amount of effort required to make the curriculum accessible for low-literacy individuals and those with a wide variety of educational backgrounds including interrupted educations. Today, we have about 400 students enrolled in the course. As we expected, the majority of these learners are women – over 70%. While some refugee women take on new roles after resettlement and earn income for their families, many others stay home to take care of children. These women often have fewer opportunities to integrate into U.S. society or finish their educations. The RCO’s GED program was built exactly for this population – women who can take the lessons on their phones or computers and study at their own pace.
“I came to the United States when I was 19, with one baby. I did not have the chance to finish school in camp. I now have three children and I can’t drive. My husband is working two jobs and comes home late. When I found the GED program, I was so happy to study. I have already finished Language Arts and Social Studies and now I take the Science Unit. The proudest day for me will be when I finish school.” -A refugee mom in the course
10) Sharing the voices of newcomers
Our Refugee Voices blog is a place where we feature stories written by newcomers, for newcomers. The goal of Refugee Voices is to help newcomers learn about challenges other newcomers have faced and to get advice about overcoming those challenges. It’s a place for newcomers to share their ideas about how to settle into life in the United States. It also provides an opportunity for newcomers to practice their writing, earn a small amount for publishing their work, and boost their resumes.
Pakshan, a refugee from Iraq, both reads and writes for Refugee Voices. She is proud to write for Refugee Voices because “It makes me feel like my experiences matter. I am happy to share what I learned to help other refugees when they come to the USA.”
We are proud to share how we are making a difference for newcomers. We could not do our work without the support of individuals like you.
The RCO’s advantage is that our programs exist entirely on the internet so that our reach is limitless. Our goal is to help newcomers build successful new lives and become contributing members of strengthened communities.
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