Since January, two RISE AmeriCorps Members have been essential in helping a group of refugees from Burma on their way to U.S. citizenship. Thu Meh and Pray Meh, who serve with EMBARC, host a weekly class to help fellow members of the Karenni community excel on their interviews and tests.
Thu Meh said the citizenship class is extremely important for her community, because passing the interview and civics test are required in order to be awarded citizenship. Citizenship has many advantages for immigrants and refugees living in the U.S., including easier access to public benefits, the freedom to travel abroad, the ability to vote, family reunification for their loved ones in other countries, and more.
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.”