About 200 attend first Refugee Summit in Eastern Iowa

Connecting with immigrant community

A choir performs three songs following the keynote presentation at the Eastern Iowa Refugee Alliance’s 2017 World Refugee Day at West High School in Iowa City on Saturday, June 17, 2017. The event included a morning of soccer games followed by an afternoon of speakers.(Cliff Jette/The Gazette),
A choir performs three songs following the keynote presentation at the Eastern Iowa Refugee Alliance’s 2017 World Refugee Day at West High School in Iowa City on Saturday, June 17, 2017. The event included a morning of soccer games followed by an afternoon of speakers.(Cliff Jette/The Gazette),

IOWA CITY — About 200 refugees, immigrants, service providers and advocates filled Iowa City West High on Friday and Saturday for the first Refugee Summit in Eastern Iowa.

Information sessions in the Summit, organized by the Johnson County Refugee Alliance, provided insight into problems refugees face, possible solutions and existing resources to help.

Some of the issues discussed:

Health care

Navigating health care services can be daunting for any American, but it’s especially difficult for refugees, panelists in the public health forum said.

Translation services are lacking, said Moses Mutula Kasiriba, a Congolese refugee and panelist.

“It’s giving missed diagnoses for refugees,” Kasiriba said. “They kind of get confused because they don’t quite understand how the same symptoms (but at a) different hospital can give a different result.”

Heather Meador, senior public health nurse with Linn County Public Health and a panelist, said it would be helpful to refugees to have a specific health professional with whom they could discuss all other aspects of their care.

“We have primary care providers, urgent care, emergency rooms, so many aspects,” Meador said. “It’s very important that we get that refugee into a medical home ... it’s their go-to person to say ‘I have a question.’ ”

Another concern is health services for women and children, especially maternity services, said Will Story, assistant professor of community and behavioral health at the University of Iowa. Many women don’t visit a doctor until a few days before they give birth because emergency Medicaid programs, available for immigrants, last only two months.


Story said he helped to organize the Congolese Refugee Health Partnership in Iowa City to serve the growth in that segment of Iowa City’s population.

Available resources now include the Linn and Johnson County public health departments, Iowa City WIC Clinic and the Free Medical Clinic in Iowa City.


Finding jobs is no easy task, said Abouhorira Khatir, a student at Kirkwood Community College.

Khatir, a Sudanese refugee, said while he was happy to find a job when he moved to America, the jobs were difficult. He has been a dishwasher, an Uber driver and worked at a meatpacking plant.

Khatir said he knew he had to get an education and learn English to qualify for better jobs. He would take classes each morning, but the six total hours navigating public transportation to get to his dishwashing job after school made studying almost impossible.

Edmond Bigiba, a refugee who now is a social worker, agreed that some refugees come to America with college degrees but aren’t able to use them.

”I know a woman. She has a degree in education in her country,” Bigiba said. “She has never, never used that degree here in America. She is doing factory jobs. No one would want to do that.”

Bigiba said that, like other Americans, refugees job opportunities. He just asks that employers take time to train and explain expectations to refugees who are willing to work hard but who might have language barriers or different cultural expectations.

For refugees, Bigiba offered these tips: Speak loudly, even if you still are learning English; practice interviewing before a first interview; ask employers for detailed expectations and keep working to find a career path instead of just a job.



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Schools provide English language services and other educational resources for refugee children, but are districts doing enough to help parents understand the educational system? That was a question during a session on how to advocate for refugee children.

Parents and guardians should show support for a children’s education, said Shannon Hammen Miner, a student and family advocate with the Iowa City school district.

“Children are more successful in their learning when their guardians are actively engaged,” Hammen Miner said. “I can tell you there’s not a parent not doing that, (but) maybe families have varying experiences when it comes to the educational system. It’s up to us to see what that is and highlight that.”

Anne Kiche, a Kenyan immigrant, said there is little chance for immigrant or refugee parents to understand the role parents play in a child’s education.

“From where I come from, when I drop my children off at school, I expect the teacher to do everything she needs to do to educate my child. I’m not expected to go to parent-teacher conferences. I’m not expected to participate in the education of the child or activities,” Kiche said.

Every parent wants their child to succeed, Kiche said, but refugee parents don’t understand how they can influence a child’s education because parent-teacher conferences and other school-parent functions are foreign to them.

Though schools have orientation nights, a group similar to a welcoming committee might be useful to explain the point of orientation, Kiche said. Having an individual from a culture similar to that of the refugee or immigrant parent explain the educational system also might be helpful, she said.

“When you talk, address each and every small piece and don’t take any piece for granted. Take one and talk about it thoroughly and say why we need parents to be involved in child’s education and then you break it down: ‘How do I do my part?’ ” Kiche said. “If I know ... exactly how that’s going to benefit my kid, and I see it ... it’s actually working for my child, then I want to be more involved.”


Hammen Miner said school districts can do more to honor the commitment refugee parents have given and adjust expectations to their cultural norms.


Stephanie Getting, RefugeeRISE AmeriCorps employee based at ICCompassion, helped plan much of the Refugee Summit. She said the Johnson County Refugee Alliance hopes the event acts as a catalyst for future services to help families already settling in Eastern Iowa who are looking to invest in their new home.

Fatima Saeed, a Sudanese immigrant who attended the event, urged other refugees and immigrants to find a way to give back to their new community.

“There is a part we have to do as refugees,” Saeed said. “(Americans) opened their hearts to us, open their schools, open their land and they hug us. We come with different backgrounds. We have to ... figure out how we need to help, how we can communicate and how we can make our backgrounds work, not to clash.”

l Comments: (319) 368-8516; makayla.tendall@thegazette.com



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