Story by Julia DiGiacomo
For former AmeriCorps RISE Member Kar Meh, empowering immigrants and refugees with EMBARC Waterloo has become a family endeavor. After successfully completing her AmeriCorps term in 2020, she encouraged her two younger siblings to join the IT Navigator Program as volunteers. Now the family works together to improve the prospects of refugees from Burma in Waterloo.
Kar inspired her 14-year-old brother Klaw Reh and 16-year-old sister Su Meh to follow in her footsteps after volunteering with EMBARC throughout high school as both a youth navigator and RISE member. Kar is also signed up to mentor volunteers for the IT Navigator Program.
“My sister definitely motivated me to join,” Klaw said. “She told me it was a great opportunity.”
Klaw and Su now assist refugees learning to use computers and the internet through the IT Navigator Program. As Youth Technology Navigators, they joined a secondary cohort of student volunteers. After extensive training sessions, they teach basic technology skills needed for modern life in the U.S. to peers and their community.
Su said she and her brother also are currently creating videos on topics such as the U.S. educational and grading systems so that refugee parents can stay involved in their children’s education. Klaw and Su’s bilingual English and Karenni skills have been critical for connecting with and educating clients.
“Most of the Burmese students’ parents have little to no knowledge on these things because of the language barrier,” Su said. “Our goal is to educate them on these topics.”
As just a middle schooler, Klaw is the youngest volunteer with the IT Navigator Program. He said working with his older sister Su has made the experience a lot easier, since she understands him and helps build off of his suggestions for projects.
Kar Meh made her own significant impact on clients at EMBARC Waterloo before her younger siblings’ joined the effort. During her AmeriCorps term as a senior in high school, she primarily worked with youth and interpreted for clients at Waterloo Community Schools before the pandemic hit. Afterwards, she refocused her energy on distributing food supplies for families in need. Kar helped order food, package supplies, reach out to partners, and connect with communities.
Kar’s exemplary work as well as Su’s own past experiences with EMBARC led West High School Student Su to get involved too.
“One of the reasons why I joined this program is because it gives me the opportunity to give back to the community, especially the Burmese community since I’m very interested in it,” Su said. “Knowing I’m helping out others from the same background as me empowers me a lot.”
Story by Julia DiGiacomo
Over a decade after fleeing unrest in Burma for the United States, Aung* was struggling to keep his family afloat as the financial tolls of the COVID-19 pandemic grew heavier and heavier. To avoid drowning in bills, he connected with EMBARC for help.
Aung represents one of many refugees and immigrants across the U.S. burdened by the COVID-19 pandemic. While unemployment rates spiked in 2020, immigrants (especially those with less education) faced sharper job cuts than non-immigrants. Meatpacking plants, which heavily rely on immigrant workers, also became a hot spot for COVID-19 in spring 2020. Aung’s workplace wasn’t spared.
An outbreak at the JBS pork plant in Marshalltown caused Aung to stay home for his child’s safety. One of his young children developed pneumonia at the same time and was considered high risk. While the child recovered and the virus spread at his job, Aung received unemployment aid instead.
After returning to work at JBS, Aung was hit with devastating news. He was one of hundreds of Iowans who was mistakenly overpaid in unemployment assistance. He would have to pay back a large amount to the Iowa Workforce Development.
Aung’s wife, Lwe Lwe*, tested positive for coronavirus in October and he was forced to quarantine at home. Subsequently, Aung was laid off from his job for taking two breaks in one year. Since Lwe Lwe cared full-time for their two young children, aged four and six, the family was left with zero income.
Lal Muani, an EMBARC RISE AmeriCorps member, says Aung reached out to EMBARC while struggling to manage a mortgage and paying back unemployment benefits and a surgery bill from 2019. Aung and his wife, who speak Mizo Chin, had struggled to understand the extent of the dental surgery bill for their son due to the language barrier.
“I can’t imagine how frustrated and stressed they were,” Muani said. “They didn’t have food stamps or any social income at all. They’re going to think of losing the house. ”
Muani, who also speaks Mizo Chin, worked extensively with Aung to complete a Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) application. She also helped him overcome English language and technology barriers while submitting job applications.
With Muani and EMBARC’s help, the odds finally began to turn in Aung’s favor. After about a month of waiting, Aung was approved for PUA. The funds allowed him to pay back all of the unemployment aid and take care of other bills, such as the dental payment. He was eventually hired at a well-paying company and returned to work to provide for his family.
“I am really proud of my team and I, that we could step in and help him figure out every situation,” Muani said. “Now he’s back to work and his payments have been settled. I think it’s really a win-win story.”