In Iowa: Creating partnerships to aid inclusivity

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A  small girl stands in an apartment building parking lot, clutching a parcel containing a blanket and a card with the message, “You are not alone.”

The photo of that moment, taken last year by then-Gazette intern KC McGinnis, has stuck with me. It depicts a moment repeated throughout the year by volunteers in a local organization working to help newly arrived refugees and immigrants adjust to life in the Corridor.

The group, known until recently as the CongoReform Association, is made up primarily of East African immigrants in the Corridor. They help newcomers with everything from finding housing and jobs to providing mattresses, blankets and kitchenware to families who often arrive with little more than what they can fit in a suitcase.

This month, the organization officially changed its name to the Refugee and Immigrant Association. They made the change to demonstrate inclusivity — they want people to know they can and do offer assistance to any immigrant, not just Congolese.

They also want to demonstrate all are welcome to get involved with their mission.

Though the group was formed by Congolese immigrants, some of whom arrived here a decade or more ago, they recently welcomed lifelong Iowans to the board.

Those board members have helped by setting up a website,, and a Facebook page and are working on networking with the wider community for partnerships and funding. They also helped them secure federal 501(c) 3 status, which hopefully will make it easier to secure donations.

Other local partners, such as Ascension Lutheran Church in Marion, also are helping. The church has assisted with providing some of the household supplies the association distributes.

They are the Iowan voice saying, “You are not alone,” to the association’s leaders, just as those leaders have been working to spread that message within their own community.

On Wednesday, a group from the association traveled to Des Moines to meet up with other immigrant service groups such as EMBARC — Ethnic Minorities of Burma Advocacy and Resource Center — and Lutheran Services of Iowa. EMBARC, which has offices in Des Moines, Waterloo and Marshalltown, is a grass-roots organization founded by Burmese immigrants living in Iowa in 2011.

The groups were meeting with lawmakers to discuss funding for RefugeeRISE AmeriCorps, a program that has 15 AmeriCorps volunteers based at EMBARC’s offices. Refugees and native Iowans are working together in teams across the state, assisting members of the immigrant community with accessing resources, language and workplace readiness and other things.

They also help build the capacity of service providers who may want to help but face language and cultural barriers.

We are a nation of immigrants. It is one of the things that has made our country strong — the constant stream of new ideas, new energy and drive, of cultures coming together in new ways.

That all starts when we reach out with a helping hand to our newest neighbors, to ask them how we can help and to let them know they are not alone.

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