After receiving not one but two funding awards from Google, a developing workforce and education program that serves Iowa refugees will expand into underserved rural communities.
Through its Impact Challenge Iowa initiative, the tech giant first awarded $175,000 in August to the RefugeeRISE AmeriCorps Program. The program was one of five nonprofits statewide selected to receive the award. Among those groups, RefugeeRISE then won an online public vote to receive another $125,000.
Program staff took a “grassroots” approach to that campaign, and there were “tears of joy” upon learning their work had paid off, said Alicia Soppe, director of programs at the Ethnic Minorities of Burma Advocacy and Resource Center, or EMBARC, which launched RefugeeRISE in 2015.
“Our team and supporters were knocking on doors, speaking to churches and sharing posts on Facebook in probably 30 languages,” she said.
Under the program, RefugeeRISE AmeriCorps members are recruited from refugee community leaders and matched with local not-for-profit or workforce agencies, where they spend 11-month terms working on refugee-serving projects unique to each area.
In the coming year, a total of 12 members will work through three Corridor area hosts — Iowa City Compassion, Cedar Rapids’ Catherine McAuley Center and a partnership between Eastern Iowa African Diaspora and the Cedar Rapids Community School District — and could empower more than 300 refugee clients with skills training, job placement or support services in the process, Soppe said.
Program staff now are working to identify six to eight new RefugeeRISE host sites to add to the current 13 statewide, including possible locations in Carroll, Denison, Muscatine and Ottumwa.
Soppe said the money also could help RefugeeRISE improve its use of technology in communications and training around the state and in web-based program opportunities.
Newly arrived refugees in the U.S. frequently never have undertaken tasks Americans might take for granted, such as getting an ID, finding a doctor or applying for public benefits, said Lemi Tilahun, who helped Catherine McAuley Center clients as a 2018-19 RefugeeRISE member.
“It’s so hard for someone new who’s learning a whole different culture at the same time to be able to take on this task of learning how to navigate the bus system or drive a car,” he said.
Even knowing where to find services can create barriers for refugees, said Lewi Manirumva, a RefugeeRISE member for 2018-19 and the upcoming term, who himself migrated to the U.S. from Burundi in 2004.
“It’s hard for them to even find interpreters, because they don’t know the people here, so they’re usually stuck in the house because they can’t really do anything,” Manirumva said.
Though the challenges new refugees face transcend urban and rural boundaries, Tilahun said, they can be pronounced in the latter areas because of comparatively limited resources — which he said the Google funds will help bolster.
Through a translator, Espoir Muzige said he migrated from Burundi to Iowa with his wife and child in late April. After making use of support services through the Catherine McAuley Center, Muzige said he now has a job painting pallets and hopes to continue his education so that, one day, he can work as a nurse or doctor.
“I’m very thankful and happy,” he said. “Now, I’m self-sufficient.”
EMBARC estimates more than 18,000 refugees have resettled directly to Iowa over the past decade.
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