After the Taliban-takeover in Afghanistan forced thousands of families to flee from their homes and seek resettlement, RISE AmeriCorps Members and staff at Catherine McAuley Center (CMC) are helping Afghan refugees adjust to their new lives in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
In affiliation with the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI), CMC is responsible for resettlement services to support refugees during their first months in the country. From coordinating housing to medical assistance to cultural orientation, CMC is the official guide in Cedar Rapids for refugees abruptly dropped into a foreign land and culture.
RISE AmeriCorps Member David Clower said the number of Afghan refugees arriving in Cedar Rapids has poured in like a tidal wave, in comparison to the usual trickle of refugees resettled from mostly Central Africa. During just a two week period in November 2021, over 80 Afghan refugees arrived in Cedar Rapids. In all, Clower said 250 Afghan refugees have been welcomed by CMC from mid-November to mid-February. In contrast, CMC often resettles only about 150 clients over a year.
CMC immediately stepped up with the most urgent needs, like short-term housing. Clower said they usually try to set up refugees in apartments, but due to the large number of people, they are staying in hotels for now. CMC also set the refugees up for success by helping them enroll in public benefits like electronic benefit transfer (EBT) or Medicaid and receive medical screenings.
“Now, we’re trying to get people into long-term housing, get kids enrolled in school, work with people to get them into English classes and help them figure out employment options,” Clower said.
RISE AmeriCorps Members and staff also initially welcomed the rush of arrivals with a cultural orientation about life in the U.S. RISE AmeriCorps Member Laurent Ramazani has been especially helpful in guiding students through four classes, covering topics such as American culture, how to navigate the bus system, how to receive medical help and much more.
“If you think of it from the perspective of an Afghan evacuee who has been pulled in a lot of different directions and now planted in a new community, providing something like bus orientation is so important,” RISE AmeriCorps Member Victoria Conoan said.
With the help of donations, CMC also arranged outings to raise spirits and introduce Afghans to Cedar Rapids. RISE AmeriCorps Members and staff provided transportation and coordinated trips to see the Nutcracker ballet and spend a day at the Play Station, a three-story indoor playground.
“This is a way to get people out of the hotel in the middle of the coldest months of the year when they’re cut off from the community and everything’s new and strange,” Conoan said. “It was really neat to see because the kids had been cooped up in the hotel. They were just so excited to burn off energy at Play Station.”
Going forward, CMC is dedicated to following up with educational services like English classes and job readiness training. Conoan and Clower said many of the refugees previously worked for the U.S. military bases and have ample skills. With resources and education from CMC, they have the chance to gain quality jobs again.
“I want to see people stay in Iowa,” Clower said. “I would like to see Cedar Rapids be a place that really welcomes refugees from all over the world.”