CEDAR RAPIDS — The Catherine McAuley Center welcomed its last refugees last week before the U.S. government temporarily paused the resettlement program, restricting travel because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Staffers at the Cedar Rapids center, which is closed at least until April 13, are creating online tutorials in five languages to teach clients about COVID-19 and continue teaching English Language Learning lessons to its 470 students.
“The videos are about keeping our faces in front of our students and engaging them in learning,” said Anne Dugger, the center’s director of education.
“All I could think of was an entire month, if not more, of no English Language Learning and no social connection with us, Dugger said. “Not having those points of connection, we thought, was going to be really difficult (for our clients).”
Since many clients cannot read or write in their native language or in English, video tutorials in Spanish, Swahili, English, French and Kinyarwanda provide education about what COVID-19 is and what precautions to take against it.
The U.S. pause on refugee resettlement — from March 19 through April 6 — “is hard because we know there’s a lot of family members here who have been waiting and waiting for their families to come,” said Paula Land, the center’s executive director.
“It’s uncertain, like everything with regard to travel. We certainly don’t want to bring people over into an unsafe environment.”
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Ninety refugees have been accepted for resettlement in Cedar Rapids over the next two years. On Friday, a pregnant woman was unable to be resettled in Iowa because of the travel restrictions.
NEW CHALLENGES ARISE
It’s going to be difficult connecting the newest refugees, who arrived in Iowa on Wednesday, to services, said Sara Zejnic, the center’s director of refugee and immigrant services.
In the first 90 days after refugees arrive in Iowa, Catherine McAuley workers help connect them to Social Security, visit the doctor, find a job and enroll in school.
The Social Security Administration closed its offices March 17, in response to the pandemic, and it is unknown when the they will reopen.
Without being able to apply for a Social Security number, everything else is on hold, Zejnic said.
“Social Security being closed is having a big impact on public benefits applications required (for immigrants) because you have to have your Social Security number or a receipt showing you applied for a Social Security number in order to be eligible,” Zejnic said.
Accessing health care is another barrier. Zejnic said a number of refugees arrive with medical needs, but doctor offices and hospitals are restricting the number of new patients they take in because of coronavirus-related demands.
Employment is another issue.
The food production and manufacturing companies where many immigrants and refugees get jobs are open and hiring, Zejnic said.
“We’re trying to get people, even if it’s a temporary job, helping to stock shelves at Hy-Vee or Target,” Zejnic said. “We’re working with our clients and talking to them to make sure they know this is not a good time to quit a job.”
IMPACT ON FUND DRIVE
The coronavirus closings and social distancing also has affected the nonprofit’s ability to continue a fund drive to pay for its relocation this summer to the former UnityPoint Health-St. Luke’s Hospital Living East building, 1220 Fifth Ave. SE. The drive also aims to create a $1 million endowment.
“We’ve had a lot of really awesome support for this campaign,” Land said. “As you can imagine, not having face to face contact is limiting our ability to meet directly with people and asking them to be a part of this campaign. We are trying to be creative and find new ways to reach out to folks.”
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The center is continuing to operate its food pantry and is also accepting donations of hand sanitizer and other supplies. To donate, call (319) 363-4993.
To access the center’s tutorial videos, visit the Catherine McAuley Center on Facebook.
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