Helping Refugees Is Actually Super Easy

Image from the World Relief Chicago summer youth program

There is no doubt that the events in Paris this weekend were awful. My heart aches with those affected, as well as those affected by other crisis situations occurring every day that don’t get media coverage and attention. But do you know what I love? All of a sudden, there is a national, even world, spotlight on refugees. And, while some of it might be negative right now, I believe that it will be positive in the end. One thing was clear when I worked with refugees at World Relief Chicago: your average person doesn’t know anything about the refugee process. I sure didn’t until I started working with refugees. My hope is that some of this sudden exposure will translate into helping refugees from the middle east and elsewhere.

I had the pleasure of working at World Relief Chicago (WRC) with refugee youth for a few years. I had a strong desire to work with refugees when returning to Chicago after living abroad in Bolivia. After 2 years of living in a different country I could identify with some of their experience: I knew what it felt like to be a foreigner, how out of my element and stupid I felt and how important it was to be taken in by friendly people who made me feel comfortable in their country. Our Bolivian friends who treated us like family was probably the only thing that kept me going at times. I wanted to pay it forward in some way. When I came home, I got to work researching how to get involved with refugees. This is a major difference between my experience and a refugee’s. I got to go home. Refugees do not. They are refugees because after an extensive interview and screening process that usually takes a few years, it is officially deemed too dangerous to return home. I cannot even imagine how hard it would be to deal with that and all the trauma they experience before they get here. I often think back to a particular conversation with an Iraqi friend about all the terrible things he experienced including his son being shot at school during an Al Queda raid (he survived and I got to know him well). I’ll never forget how he looked at me straight in the eyes and said, “Elsa, I hope you never, ever experience the horrors that I have.” Another family told me of how they had a friend who was shot and then their own family members were forced to pay for the bullet that killed their relative. Hearing these accounts first hand was horrific, fascinating and motivated me all the more to offer as much help as I could.

Image from World Relief summer youth program

I loved my job at World Relief and I often found myself chatting with people about it. It quickly became clear that there are some misconceptions out there. Most common one being that refugees are somehow illegal immigrants. This is not true. Refugees are accepted legally to live and work in a host country like the US or others. After the interview and screening process, they are accepted ahead of their arrival meaning that they are legally here the second they step foot on US soil. If you want to read a good and very informative article on the screening process, the difference between refugees and immigrants, how agencies can be sure refugees are not in fact terrorists and other FAQs, check out this link: It also addresses the biblical framework for why to help refugees.

So once here, the government agrees to help subsidize housing and supply medical insurance through medicaid for 90 days after their arrival. This means that refugees are expected to be able to stand on their own with a job, steady income, place to live, ability to speak English, etc. within 90 days. I mean, have you ever lived in a foreign country? That timeline is pretty dang hard to accomplish! This is where refugee resettlement agencies come into play. Organizations like World Relief Chicago come alongside newly arrived refugees to administer federal funds and provide extra support as they get used to their new home. Family and individual refugee cases are assigned to refugee resettlement agencies who start by picking up new refugees from the airport and bringing them to their new home that has been found for them and furnished by the refugee resettlement agency. Other services provided include: ESL classes, job training/resume help, case management, furniture and clothing donations, youth services and more.

My particular role included helping new families find and register their children in school, serve as school liaison plus plan and run our after school program that focused on tutoring, homework help and English learning. We also had fun because being a kid can be hard especially when you’re away from everything familiar to you. We did special art projects and kicked around a soccer ball (much to the chagrin of the below store owner), played “Steal the Bacon’ and hoped that the kids could forget about their difficulties for a few hours and just be kids. I grew to know and love so many wonderful families in my few years there. It became so easy to help them because I genuinely cared for them and couldn’t imagine how difficult it might be to be in their shoes.

Getting messy at after school program

What I found most lovely was visiting homes. I would often have to go to a newly arrived family’s home because I found that explaining I was going to show up in a van every week and take their child to our office for the after school program just didn’t translate well over the phone with such little common language. Motions and gestures and pictures were usually necessary. Most of the time I would show up unexpected with not much of an idea of what to expect myself. Entering some homes was like stepping into a foreign country. Like little capsules of Nepal or Myanmar or Iraq right in the middle of Chicago. I tried to pick up on and adapt to differing cultural norms but I was laughed at from time to time. Like when I was holding the fufu all wrong at a particular Congolese family’s house. No matter what culture was created in each home, there were inevitably tasks that families needed help with which for me were simple but for them were confusing and foreign but also necessary to complete. Which mail is junk and which are important bills? What documents need to be brought to school for my child’s registration? How do I use the bus/train to get to my doctor’s appointment? All of these tasks which were easy for me or you to navigate seemed to build on top of each other until they felt overwhelming.

That’s where all of us come in. All of these small daily tasks are too much for refugee resettlement agencies to handle. The reality is that these agencies are usually understaffed and operating with not enough money. I can personally vouch for WRC that the staff does SO much with little funds. They are helping so many that it gets to a point where they have to taper off services so they can help the next ones arriving.

Image from World Relief Chicago summer youth program

Think about it. We all need a network. We network with others to get information, get help, get resources, get jobs, get happy and more. Now imagine being in a new country with either nobody or just a few people you know. Oh, and you don’t know the language. Oh, and you need to get a job using that language within 90 days. We can help be that network! Refugee resettlement agencies make it easy to do so by volunteering in so many ways. For example: you can volunteer for roles at their offices, tutor children with homework or help adults with English, provide furniture or clothing donations, ‘mentor’ families by coming alongside them by building a relationship and more.

Do you want to help refugees assimilate and provide real help to them in a time of need? It’s as easy as this:

  1. Google refugee resettlement agencies in your city. If you live in a reasonably sized city, you probably have one close by. Maybe even 5 of them. Pinpoint them and read a little about their philosophies to make sure you can align with them.
  2. Read about volunteer opportunities with a particular refugee resettlement agency and identify one that suits you. Do you have education experience? Maybe you could tutor adults or children. Do you have a group ready to mobilize and find donations? Volunteer to set up a new apartment. Are you good at building relationships and resolving issues as they come up? Then volunteer to mentor a new family. Maybe you are in a position to give money or raise money…always super helpful! Depending on the agency, there could be one time ways to help such as: winter clothing drives, holiday gift programs, school supply drives or even just attending their annual fundraiser could be very helpful.
  3. After identifying which area you might be able to assist, contact the agency to let them know you want to volunteer. You can usually find the right contact person from their website. Keep in mind that they may be understaffed so you may need to be the one to pursue them. I am in this process myself and I currently need to do some further follow up to make the connection.
  4. The contact person will start the process of volunteering. This will probably involve a training or two so that you can learn more about refugees and your role as volunteer. You’ll also probably get a plan of where, when, how often, etc.
  5. Get to it! And expect to be flexible! You will be dealing with individuals from a very different place than you and will surely have some moments that are confusing, others that are purely joyful. Expect them all.

My point? It’s actually a lot easier than you think to help newly arrived refugees. And it is also super important. It can be as simple as becoming a friend. All it takes is a little initiative to get involved. I am in this process myself of getting involved again in volunteering with a refugee settlement agency. You can do it too!

Kids being kids at the summer program



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