116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst became emotional as she talked with people involved in refugee resettlement in Cedar Rapids — some of them refugees themselves.
“There are so many incredible people involved here,” Ernst said Tuesday while touring the Catherine McAuley Center in downtown Cedar Rapids.
The center has received about 205 Afghan refugees since October and is expected that to grow to at least 250 this year. That’s in addition to an expected 150 “typical” refugees, according to Sara Zejnic, director of Refugee and Immigrant Services.
“Iowa has such a rich history of bringing immigrants into our state when they have been turned away by so many other places,” the Iowa Republican said. “It does give me a great sense of pride. I love the fact that we are opening our doors and our hearts to people who have struggled.”
Afghanistan refugees “have been so special” because of the large number of Iowans in the military who have served there, Ernst said. “So that has a special significance to so many Iowans.”
“So I think it's an ongoing campaign of compassion,” Ernst said.
Her visit was about more than a feel-good opportunity, however. Ernst spoke to staff and refugees, including some from Afghanistan, about the challenges faced by the new arrivals.
Among the greatest challenges, she learned, are language, housing and employment. For some, especially the Afghanistan refugees, Zejnic added, there are security concerns. Refugees who had fears about their names or images appearing in the media because they have family and friends still in Afghanistan met privately with Ernst during her visit.
Overall, Zejnic said, there has been an outpouring of support from the community, including employers looking to fill jobs.
However, among the barriers, Rosa Kombwa, business development manager, told Ernst is getting a driver’s license. Several of the refugees the center works with have truck driving experience — and there is high demand for truck drivers. However, permit tests are offered in only a few languages, and applicants cannot use an interpreter.
Another high-demand employment are is health care, so the center works on familiarizing refugees and immigrants with the terminology so they can enter a certified nurse associate program, for example. Overall, recertification is a challenge for those refugees who have skills, but must be licensed to work in those fields in Iowa.
The input from McAuley staff and refugees will help her in developing policies when she heads back to Washington next week, Ernst said.
“We want to make sure that their transition is as smooth as possible,” she said about employment opportunities, health care and overall integration into the community.
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