Innovate funding for better refugee, immigrant integration

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One of the biggest hurdles facing immigrants and refugees is integration into existing communities. And while there are innovative ideas about how to ease the transition, existing funding streams are rarely flexible enough to put them into practice.

Dr. Ann Valentine, executive dean of Kirkwood Community College’s Iowa City campus, says identifying needs isn’t difficult and, since several organizations and institutions are combating similar issues, collaborative programming can be a natural fit. The issue, she told residents gathered in Iowa City on Wednesday for a Johnson County discussion on assistance for refugees, is that funding for educational services exists in traditional, narrow silos.

That is a growing problem, especially in Johnson County. For instance, in 2009, Kirkwood’s Iowa City campus had 37 English-as-a-Second-Language credit students. Now there are 270.

Although the Iowa City campus has roughly one-tenth of the student population on Kirkwood’s main campus in Cedar Rapids, it serves only 45 fewer ESL students.

These rapid cultural changes are already having an impact. New student orientation now includes three language interpreters — Arabic, Spanish and French — and offers much more thorough financial aid information sessions.

“Right now, I think we have more Spanish speakers than we did. It really is changing and shifting all the time,” Valentine said after the group discussion.

Moving targets are challenging, but Valentine thinks a program developed by staff at Kirkwood and Iowa City’s Horace Mann Elementary could address multigenerational learning and support.

Called “Flavors of Home” the program encourages families to cultivate familiar, edible plants.

“Sudanese people like to eat a portulaca Iowans consider a weed. We pull it out, but it is very edible and highly nutritious,” she said.

If funded the project would help urban refugee families establish container gardens, which would increase their food security and provide access to familiar foods.

“So they’d be growing their own clean food that tastes like something they would have at home,” she said. “But while they are going about that, they are reading seed packages and measuring ingredients for recipes. They are reading catalogs, placing orders and learning about the local climate.”

These are things the entire family could do together, which would improve overall family literacy, mathematics, food security and more.

“But there is no direct path to funding,” she said, referring to how funding is geared to specific age groups of learners.

If integration is the goal we want for refugees and immigrants — and by every plausible measure, it must be — then systems must adapt to support multigenerational programs. Society can’t afford to write off the first generation of refugees. We need them to be fully contributing members of our communities now.

New or at least re-envisioned educational funding streams must be established for innovative, family-centered programs. They are how our state’s newest residents will integrate and thrive.

• Comments: @LyndaIowa, (319) 339-3144,

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