Tin Lia, a RefugeeRISE AmeriCorps Member at EMBARC, was born in Mandalay, Burma, where his parents owned a restaurant and were leaders of the Chin community.
Tin’s refugee journey began when increasing economic hardship led Tin, his father, and his brother to make plans to go to Malaysia to earn money to send back to their family in Burma. To get to Malaysia, Tin and his father had to illegally pass through Thailand. This dangerous journey took 25 days. While working in Malaysia (illegally), Tin and his family heard about the possibility of applying for refugee status to go to the United States. Tin’s father was accepted to relocate to the United States, and Tin was young enough to go with him. However, Tin’s brother was too old and had to stay behind in Malaysia to wait for his own possible clearance. Tin’s mother and sisters were also left behind in Burma.
While arriving in the United States was a dream come true it was filled with many hardships for Tin and his father, who suffered a stroke just 19 days after arriving. Tin also found a challenge in enrolling in the Des Moines Public School system because of his age and lack of English proficiency.
To overcome these great challenges, Tin turned to EMBARC, a local Burma led nonprofit. He came for help with his father’s medications and appointments. He also received a mentor to help with with food, transportation, and English skills.
Tin later came back to EMBARC for help enrolling at Hoover High School to obtain a high school diploma. Despite being over the age limit to sign up for high school classes, EMBARC successfully advocated for Tin’s enrollment. When he entered Hoover High School, Tin’s English abilities consisted of “yes” and “no,” but EMBARC and DMPS had faith in his ability to overcome his challenges. After five months at Hoover, Tin could pick up on the class material and in 2018, Tin graduated from Hoover High School.
After his graduation, Tin joined AmeriCorps RefugeeRISE. As an AmeriCorps member, Tin hopes to gain more experience, further his education, and become more familiar with the Des Moines area. In addition, Tin values being able to help individuals from Burma. Tin loves being able to connect individuals from the Chin community to the services available at EMBARC. He also loves that AmeriCorps allows him to dedicate time to help his community and those in need. Following his AmeriCorps service, Tin hopes to continue his education. He hopes to either continue serving his community or to attend seminary.
Nancy arrived in the United States in January of 2018 from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. A mere six months after arriving in the United States, Nancy started as a RefugeeRISE AmeriCorps member at Path of Hope in Coralville. When she first began her job, Nancy had to overcome a steep learning curve. She did not understand how to use a computer, send emails, or speak English well. However, since working with RefugeeRISE, Nancy has made significant improvement. She has developed both technological and language skills to help complete her service and aid clients in achieving similar success.
Nancy joined AmeriCorps because she loves helping people connect into their new culture. As a recent arrival to the United States, Nancy understands the important steps that refugees need to take in order to integrate into society. When her clients come in to Path of Hope, Nancy stresses the importance of signing up for ESL courses because she understands the value of knowing English in the United States. Nancy spends her week helping clients obtain employment. She supports them in their job search, helps them apply to different positions, and obtains transportation for them to attend interviews. She also helps clients apply for food stamps, school programs, cash benefits, Medicaid, and ESL classes. One of her favorite parts of the job is watching her clients progress from the application process to obtaining successful employment. She loves receiving the call that one of her clients has been accepted for a position.
During her time at RefugeeRISE AmeriCorps, Nancy has shown admirable commitment to her position. She sometimes spends long hours helping clients. Once, Nancy left everything she was working on to drive a client to the hospital. She spent nine hours at the hospital with the client, arriving to her college course an hour late in order to help the client for as long as possible.
So far, Nancy has taken on 15 regular clients that she serves each week. She continues to improve at her job and her English skills. In addition to her service at Path of Hope, Nancy is taking English classes in the evenings. Nancy values being a RefugeeRISE AmeriCorps member because of the value the program places on her own personal development, an aspect she would not receive if at home or working elsewhere. When her position becomes challenging, Nancy now knows to ask her fellow service members for help. However, Nancy has continued to become more self-sufficient as she helps the refugee community in Coralville do the same.
On a snowy morning in November, RefugeeRISE AmeriCorps members in Coralville were helping make the Thanksgiving season a bit brighter for their community. For their “Day of Thanks” event, RefugeeRISE members at Path of Hope prepared food baskets that individuals could use to cook a Thanksgiving dinner for their family. The baskets were filled with many different food items, such as pork loins, hamburger patties, filet mignon, sirloin steaks, eggs, acorn squash, chicken, cereal, bread, perishables, spinach, kale, strawberries, cottage cheese, or sandwiches.
Path of Hope decorated an empty room in their office building with Thanksgiving-themed tablecloths, balloons, and streamers. From 9 AM until noon, many RefugeeRISE members handed out food from 9 in the morning until noon to 138 individuals from 31 families who had braved the cold to attend the event.
Susan Shultz, a RefugeeRISE member at Path of Hope who helped lead this project, estimates that at least $6000 dollars worth of food was distributed. During the two weeks leading up to the event, Susan helped to coordinate food donations, obtain thrift store vouchers, and made food at the event for the individuals that visited. RefugeeRISE members at Path of Hope had also compiled information about different services in the area that attendees could use during the holiday season. Susan describes that it was a “beautiful” event and a wonderful way to “give thanks for [their] clients.”
In 1997, Garang applied for a visa to come to the United States as a refugee. After waiting a few years for his application to process, Garang was admitted to the United States and arrived in Iowa in April of 2000. Determined to make a stable life for him and his family, Garang found employment in the construction industry three weeks after receiving his Social Security information.
However, while Garang settled into his life in Des Moines, the political issues in South Sudan continued. In 2005, the Sudan Comprehensive Peace Agreement signified the close of the Second Sudanese Civil War. This agreement established a timeline for a referendum on South Sudanese independence. Garang left Des Moines in 2009 to head back to South Sudan to register individuals to vote and discuss the importance of South Sudanese independence. The vote for the independence of South Sudan took place in early 2011, with nearly 99% of registered individuals voting pro-independence.
A successful campaign under his belt, Garang left the newly-established South Sudan in 2011 and returned to Des Moines. He pursued achieving higher education and obtained an Associate in General Studies degree from DMACC. Garang went on to receive a Bachelor of Science degree in Emergency Disaster Management from Upper Iowa University.
After receiving this education, Garang searched for positions in the Des Moines metro that would help refugee communities. Since 2017, Garang has been working with AmeriCorps RefugeeRISE. Due to his proficiency in Arabic, English, and Dinka, Garang was an essential resource for helping to teach ESL and citizenship classes. Now, he has been working with Ethnic Minorities of Burma Advocacy and Resource Center (EMBARC) to lead health clinics that inform refugees about American healthcare practices. Garang enjoys helping individuals who were previously held back by their lack of English abilities to obtain citizenship and better integrate into society.
In contemplating his life after his AmeriCorps service, Garang is considering moving back to South Sudan to help humanitarian causes in the area. Eighteen years after his arrival in the United States, Garang is still connected to South Sudan. His father, brothers, and sisters still live there. While South Sudan is improving, Garang states that the country needs people to go and work on it. Specifically, Garang hopes to inform those perpetuating the violence in his country know that “we don’t need that.”
Daniel is a refugee who came from Burma. He graduated from high school, but he did not plan on immediately going to college. After taking time to reflect on what he wanted his future to look like, Daniel decided that he did in fact want to go to college. Like many individuals, Daniel didn’t know what school would be the right option for him. Many of his friends told him about their own experiences, but Daniel became frustrated by the sheer number of options he faced in central Iowa alone. After weighing his options, Daniel took a brave step towards higher education by applying to several community colleges. Once accepted, he realized the application was the easy part. He then had to fill out his FAFSA application, go through both an in-person and virtual orientation, choose his class schedule, and decide whether to live on or off campus. Once again, Daniel needed help. He reached out to his fellow RefugeeRISE host site members who had gone to college. Although there were many times Daniel wanted to give up, his co-members wouldn’t let him. Eventually, the four of them were able to complete all the necessary steps to secure enrollment and financial aid.
Daniel took control of his future by reaching out for help when he needed it, and now has college lined up and ready to go. His co-members are very excited for him, and hope to stay in contact with Daniel after their term ends.
By Rebecca Vasquez
At the Catherine McAuley Center, most of my interactions with refugee clients and recent immigrants have been during my ESL tutoring sessions. The moments I’ll remember the most are hearing the stories told to me by clients and students when they feel comfortable and trust me. The stories they tell provide insight into each of their lives. They’ve told me stories of cultural foods, stories of new hobbies or interests since coming to the U.S., stories of personal goals they want to reach, and stories of their families. These stories aren’t all stories of success, in fact many are about the challenges they face. The challenge of learning English and being understood, the challenge of discrimination, the experience of culture shock and wanting to preserve their culture, the generation gap between them and their children or grandchildren who are growing up here in the United States. These stories are heartwarming and earth shattering, but most of all they are important. Sharing stories helps us to better understand one another, and I’m very glad the clients I’ve worked with feel confident enough to share their stories with me.
By Moriah Morgan
Alice, a Karenni woman, arrived in Iowa with her husband and three children in 2015. She doesn’t speak English and a Karenni interpreter is rarely available. She struggled to understand the Burmese interpreter that was occasionally provided since her Burmese is limited. She and her family have gone to health care providers for years with little to no understanding of treatment. She has been a passive, often powerless patient. That changed in 2017 when she participated in a Karenni flu learning circle, one of seven learning circles held in Des Moines. When EMBARC followed up with Alice, she turned in a report showing she’d shared her knowledge with an additional 31 individuals!
For years, Alice reported getting a flu shot simply because her doctor had told her to. Of late, however, she had been losing faith. The shots were painful and didn’t seem to stop her from getting sick. It was with this doubt in mind that she attended a flu learning circle. Alice quickly learned the truth about how the flu was often mistaken as the common cold and how severe the flu actually can be. She realized how important this information was in terms of changing people’s understanding of sickness.
Alice felt it was her responsibility to teach her community. She knew that a large number of them felt the same way she did before learning the truth. She went door to door asking her neighbors if she could talk to them for a minute about the flu.
The information, Alice thought, was far too important for just a phone call. Speaking in person would allow her to gauge whether they understood what she was saying.
“I am really happy when someone appreciates the information I’ve shared, or they say, ‘oh I didn’t know the importance, but I will go now!’” Some neighbors told her they didn’t have insurance or that they were still asked to pay $20 and couldn’t afford it. Alice made sure to tell them that flu shots would be free with Medicaid, and tried to persuade them that paying $20 would be worth not getting sick if they didn’t have Medicaid.
Months later, Alice still spoke of this experience enthusiastically. She looks forward to participating in future learning circles and gaining more information about different health topics. Alice has requested to even be a host for a future learning circle so that she can promote the continuation of this valuable program.
By Path of Hope Staff, as told to Sarah Hubbard
Recently, Path of Hope’s RefugeeRISE Americorps members Tyler Scrimager and Jacques Luzindya assisted a family of eight from Congo. When the family first came to us, the parents weren’t working, the mother, who didn’t speak any English, was pregnant, and the kids didn’t have transportation to school. The family also needed help transferring their public assistance to Iowa and completing their vaccinations. Jacques helped find a job for the father. We then connected the mother to employment resources so she could begin working after her pregnancy, and connected her to ESL courses. Both Jacques and Tyler continuously helped the mother with appointments at the hospital for her pregnancy, through the day she gave birth in mid-January. Path of Hope helped the family transfer their benefits to Iowa and helped them complete their vaccinations. Jacques and Tyler both provided transportation for the kids to and from school for months until the family was able to buy a car when they got their tax return in February. Although the family’s case file is now closed, they still keep in contact with Jacques, Tyler, and the rest of the Path of Hope team. The parents have been taking the kids to school now that transportation isn't a problem. One of the children was able to get soccer cleats from the school and joined the soccer team. The father is still working at the job Jacques helped him find, and the mother looks forward to joining the workforce soon.
By Nyamal Deng and Terry Prickett
This spring, The Bridge of Storm Lake held a gardening service day for youth in the community. In the weeks leading up to the event, our team discussed how to create a good learning environment, how to teach the skills we wanted to have youth leave with, and how to build or improve the knowledge participants may already have. Additionally, our team had to learn the skills required before we could pass them on to others. On the day of the event, the youth came in not knowing much about gardening. We used the RefugeeRISE self-assessment tracking tool to give the youth participants a pre and post test about gardening. The growth in knowledge was very notable. At the end of the workshop, everyone who came had at least a ten percent increase in overall understanding of the gardening skills we taught. Many felt prepared to take the knowledge they gained to work on their own projects outside our service day. The gardening service day was a great way for AmeriCorps members to provide youth in the community with marketable workforce skills and a place to have positive social interaction. We have a whole summer of gardening service days in the works - everything from transplanting to weeding to watering to harvesting. We can’t wait to have the project continue and make an impact on the lives of youth in our community.
About the Blog
The service members of RefugeeRISE AmeriCorps have compiled stories of success during their membership. This blog was created with the intent of sharing these valuable stories with the public.