From serving the Sudanese immigrant community to receiving resources to excel in the medical career, Fatima is is sharing her life-changing journey as RISE AmeriCorps Member at Kirkwood Community College in Iowa City.
RISE AmeriCorps Member Sayri Reyna gives us a look into her service at the City of Columbus Junction and how she's adapting to meet immigrant and refugees' needs everyday.
RISE AmeriCorps Members at Kirkwood Community College are bridging the divide between immigrants and refugees and programs to help them fill quality, in-demand jobs. Since summer 2021, a partnership between Iowa Workforce Development (IWD) and Kirkwood’s TRIO Student Support Services program has forged the way for more immigrants and refugees to enter the workforce.
“At Kirkwood, the benefit of our program is that we’re really connected to the students and the community here,” TRIO ESL Director Mallory Petsche said. “We started this partnership because there was a gap between the community accessing and knowing these programs IowaWORKS has.”
RISE AmeriCorps Members and Kirkwood’s TRIO program collaborate regularly with IWD Workforce Consultant Shane Greve. Greve meets one-on-one with Kirkwood students and discusses IWD’s wide array of services that assist with tuition, childcare, transportation, job searches, career planning and more. IWD programs such as GAP grant Iowans the funds to train and enter in-demand jobs. Certified nursing assistant (CNA) training is a particularly popular pathway among the Kirkwood community, which is helping to fill a shortage of care workers in Iowa.
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.
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.
The Day at the Capitol on February 2nd was many RISE AmeriCorps Members’ first experience speaking with legislators. Yet they were welcomed with introductions, rounds of applause and rich conversations in both chambers of the capitol. The event hosted by Volunteer Iowa helped RISE AmeriCorps Members share their stories and gain skills to continue educating Iowa about immigrants and refugees.
When RISE AmeriCorps Member Jonatan Artola informed about his service with immigrants and refugees at IC Compassion, he found that the legislators from his district were extremely receptive and interested. The experience felt especially striking to Artola, since he said it is almost impossible to talk with representatives in his home country of Guatemala. In some cases, Artola said speaking up on a politically-sensitive issue can lead to Guatemalans getting their families into trouble or even being killed.
“So this experience made me feel powerful as just a normal, common person here in Iowa,” Artola said. “I really do appreciate the opportunity.”
For the first time in two years, RISE AmeriCorps gathered at the Iowa Capitol in-person to make strides in educating state legislators. 21 RISE AmeriCorps Members, representing eight host sites in five counties across Iowa, shared stories of needs in the immigrant and refugee communities and the differences they’ve created through RISE. Others will echo virtually to create connections with legislators.
The Feb. 2 “Day at the Capitol” was organized by Volunteer Iowa to inform Iowa's lawmakers about the impacts of AmeriCorps service.
The RISE AmeriCorps team started off the day-long event with an invitation to the floors of both the House and Senate. RISE AmeriCorps Members were invited by Sen. Sarah Trone Garriott and Rep. Timi Brown-Powers to mingle with legislators and share their experiences serving immigrants and refugees. During the announcements in both chambers, the members were introduced to everyone and welcomed with a round of applause.
“RISE AmeriCorps Members connect and support fellow immigrants and refugees with education, jobs and essential services to increase economic opportunities for the communities and economic growth to Iowa,” Brown-Powers announced to the Iowa House. “Last year, the RISE Program enrolled 99 members: 90 percent recruited from Iowa, 68 percent from refugee and immigrant communities and 80 percent bilingual.”
Legislators such as Rep. Art Staed, Rep. Bob Kressig, Sen. Joe Bolkcom and many more stopped by to inquire about RISE AmeriCorps Members’ experiences serving. Members conversed about their unique experiences as immigrants and refugees in Iowa, why they joined RISE and the biggest changes they’re making in communities across the state.
Later in the event, the RISE AmeriCorps team met in Sen. Zach Wahls’ office to answer questions and explain the purposes of RISE AmeriCorps, such as improving immigrant and refugee self-sufficiency through job readiness training. Many RISE AmeriCorps Members, such as David Clower, and RISE AmeriCorps alumni Mu Paw and Lal Muani gave their perspectives on immigrant and refugee issues as well as the importance of their projects.
“We shared that we have a partnership with Iowa Workforce and we help the students with job readiness, such as getting ready to have a job, find education, and the interview process,” RISE AmeriCorps Member Farhain Mohamed said about her host site, Kirkwood Community College.
RISE AmeriCorps Member Fatima Tahir said she also shared some benefits of the program for members, such as how the mentoring program connected her with a tutor so she can study and rejoin the medical field. Fatima previously worked as a doctor in her home country and is looking to gain certifications in the U.S.
Next, RISE AmeriCorps Members and their supporters set off to request individual meetings with legislators who represent the districts of their host sites. The RISE team conversed with legislators from all political backgrounds, bringing to their attention the barriers immigrants and refugees face in Iowa without services from programs like RISE.
Centro Latino’s Community Engagement Coordinator Gabriela Pedroza shared on behalf of her and RISE AmeriCorps Member Nancy Alers, how Centro Latino is assisting the Latino community with the help of RISE.
“We work with the Latino community and underrepresented communities to create a better quality of life with resources such as GED classes, civic engagement, citizenship classes, and English classes as well." Pedroza said.
Overall, the event was not only many RISE AmeriCorps Members’ first visit to the statehouse, but an in-person look into how the government operates and a chance to make change by educating the state’s decision makers.
“Everyone has a different story for how and why we came to RISE,” RISE AmeriCorps Member Autumn Diesburg said. “Now we get to share our stories and make connections.”
MLK Day of Service represents much of what RISE AmeriCorps Members stand for as they serve diverse, underrepresented communities across Iowa.
To celebrate the holiday, four RISE AmeriCorps Members shared their thoughts on the meaning of service and their experiences with RISE through written and video reflections.
RISE AmeriCorps Members Kamaura Kim with ArtForce Iowa and Fatima Tahir with Kirkwood Community College:
RISE AmeriCorps Member Amanda McVann with EMBARC Des Moines:
Looking back, I think my whole life has been dedicated to the service of others. Helping other people when they need it most is almost an autonomic response for me - it’s like breathing. I can’t function in a world that allows injustice and oppression to continue on without resistance, so I’ve made it my mission to help uplift voices and experiences from those on the margins.
By serving with RISE AmeriCorps, I’m able to engage with members and leaders from diverse, creative, thriving, and inspiring refugee communities throughout the Des Moines area. As a newcomer to Iowa, I’ve felt warmly welcomed to the EMBARC team and feel valued for not only my previous community leadership experience but also my passion for social justice and creative writing skills. Overall, I hope that through my time with RISE AmeriCorps that I am able to continue uplifting other people’s stories and experiences that further empower and develop their voice as well as their communities.
RISE AmeriCorps Member Nafissatou Lamidi with Hoover Community School:
For me, serving is leading an impactful life. It’s a life dedicated to helping, enriching, and improving disadvantaged people’s lives. It adds value to others.
Serving with RISE has impacted me in many ways, but the most important is my personal growth. I am part of the community I am serving, so I also face some of the barriers at points in my life. By working daily to help remove those barriers for others, I’ve learned a lot. I get to improve my problem-solving skill set and I feel empowered and more integrated now.
One of my first cases was to help a kid and his mom set up a doctor appointment for his eyes after his teacher noticed that he had difficulties following along in class. But the mom didn’t have insurance and can’t speak English. Therefore, I helped her apply for insurance, called hospitals to set up an appointment and went in with them as an interpreter. Now the kid is the best student in his classroom. It was an enlightening experience to me, because I couldn’t stop wondering what they would have done without me. That’s when I told myself, “I want to keep doing this. I am sure there are many more family like this one who
needs assistance and I want to help.”
For me, service is very important because I want to live a meaningful and fulfilling life by adding value to other’s lives around me as much as I can, whether it is through service, policies, or entrepreneurship.
RISE AmeriCorps Member Julia DiGiacomo with EMBARC Des Moines:
For me, MLK Day of Service is an annual reminder to reflect on the civil rights movement and the importance of always striving for social justice and community service. Activists like Martin Luther King Jr. paved the way for underrepresented communities in the United States to gain rights and a better future. Since RISE AmeriCorps serves immigrants and refugees who still experience huge barriers in the United States, I think that recognizing and learning from past movements for social justice is essential.
The popular saying, “It takes a village,” truly exemplifies the meaning of service to me. As humans, we rely on one other to lend a helping hand in times of need. Therefore, I believe service is the lifeblood of a healthy, thriving community. All of my service experiences over the last decade have been extremely formative for me and I feel fortunate to be able to continue contributing through RISE AmeriCorps’s mission of reaching immigrants and refugees in need.
Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK) Day of Service offers an important opportunity for RISE AmeriCorps Members to reflect on civil rights movements of the past and look forward to service opportunities in their own communities. Through several upcoming events on Monday, January 17 , members and their host sites are joining the community to celebrate service together.
At the RISE Host Site Hoover Community School, the team is both volunteering in the community and hosting their own event. In the morning, members are attending a speaker series on the importance of service at Mt. Mercy University. Later, they will volunteer with Olivet Neighborhood Mission, a non-profit organization serving the Cedar Rapids neighborhood with basic needs. RISE Members will be lending a hand with sorting and preparing food boxes, as well as other direct services as needed.
From 12 - 2p.m., RISE AmeriCorps Members with Hoover are hosting a resource and clothing drive in the Hoover Community School gym. Both families at the school and others in the surrounding community are invited to learn more about and sign-up for resources such as clothing donations, job coaching and workforce readiness training.
“[The event] is going to be very impactful no matter what because it’s going to provide an opportunity for engagement, expanding learning opportunities beyond the school hours,” Community School Coordinator Lemi Tilahun said.
Since Hoover students don’t attend school on MLK Day, Tilahun said 50-80 children may be without food for lunch. The event is therefore providing a hot lunch until supplies run out.
RISE AmeriCorps Members Elsa Barroso Ramirez, Tania Ekutshu, Nafissatou Lamidi and David Niyogushima have been involved with every step of planning for the MLK Day event, Tilahun said. They were responsible for recruiting the volunteers and will ensure the logistics run smoothly on the day of the event.
RISE Host Site Community Youth Concepts in Des Moines is hosting both in-person and virtual events to engage the public. From 10-11 a.m. on Zoom, guest speaker Jane Jackson will speak on the importance of service and lead activities to spread kindness. From 1-3 p.m. at King Elementary School, the community is invited to participate in a wide range of service projects for all ages.
Jane Jackson’s session will reflect on her lifelong dedication to service, including as an activist in the civil rights movement alongside people like Dr. King himself. After her talk, Jane will guide participants to create and distribute You Matter Cards and Smile Cards. Both options help spread joy and kindness.
The in-person event will feature tables from community partners with hands-on, kid-friendly service opportunities.
RISE AmeriCorps Member Sul Ciang and program staff have been meeting weekly with groups of high schoolers as part of CYC’s commitment to youth outreach. Together, Sul helped students identify and plan their projects. She’ll also be assisting students to run their tables smoothly.
Students involved with CYC’s programming at North High School, East High School and Hoover High School will guide projects such as creating friendship bracelets and friendship rocks to spread random acts of kindness. Other students are hosting tables to create self-care kits and to design bookmarks to donate to the reading non-profit Everybody Wins! Iowa.
“Students will really take the lead and facilitate the projects at the event at their tables,” CYC Program Coordinator Amber Miller said.
Overall, RISE AmeriCorps Members are exemplifying the meaning of service on MLK Day with their participation in community events. To RSVP for CYC’s two events, email email@example.com or visit their website here: http://cyconcepts.org/martin-luther-king-jr-day/. No RSVP is needed for Hoover’s event at 4141 Johnson Ave NW, Cedar Rapids, but you can call 319-558-2369 with questions.
Tapestry Farms’ gardens offer a wealth of opportunity for serving refugee communities, including through a therapeutic gardening group and a food pantry with fresh harvests. Now, RISE AmeriCorps Members are building on their accomplishments over the summer to support the growing number of refugees in Davenport.
Founded four years ago, Tapestry Farms is a nonprofit organization that empowers refugees with urban gardening and support services. Their gardens are located across the city, in neighborhoods with high reported rates of food insecurity. Tapestry Farms also helps refugees overcome barriers to education, housing, medical assistance, transportation, citizenship and more.
Esperance “Hope” Nyanduhura was Tapestry Farm’s first ever RISE Member in the summer of 2021. Throughout her first term, she used her lived experiences as a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo to interpret for and lift up other refugees.
According to Executive Director Ann McGlynn, one of Nyanduhura’s most successful contributions over the summer was interpreting for a gardening therapy program. In partnership with an occupational therapist, Tapestry Farms hosted groups of refugee women experiencing physical challenges or social isolation.
The women gathered to garden together under the guidance of the occupational therapist, who went on to write an 86-page report of the successful project. Occupational therapy helps individuals with physical and cognitive problems recover skills for daily life.
Nyanduhura provided transportation for the women and interpreted for the therapist with her multilingual Swahili and Kinyarwanda skills.
“I know that it was very meaningful for Hope to play a role in that program,” McGlynn said. “It was really lovely. Actually, it was one of my favorite things from the summer.”
The gardens proved fruitful for another of Nyanduhura’s main roles - helping run Tapestry Farm’s bi-monthly food pantry. McGlynn said Nyanduhura helped coordinate the resources, which included harvests from the gardens. This year, Tapestry Farms staff and volunteers focused on growing vegetables preferred by African refugees. McGlynn said this included common vegetables in the U.S. like Roma tomatoes, onions, potatoes and spinach, as well as African vegetables like the leafy green lenga-lenga and an eggplant variety called intoryi.
For the upcoming RISE AmeriCorps service term, the members’ help will likely be in rising demand. Davenport is expecting a rush of of new refugees along with many other communities in the U.S., in part due to the Biden administration raising the cap on refugee resettlements. The number of refugees to be resettled in the U.S., from Oct. 1, 2021 to Sept. 30, 2022, was raised from 62,500 to 125,000. Previously, the Trump administration set the cap for refugees at 15,000.
Tapestry Farms is currently preparing to welcome a significant increase of refugees from countries like Afghanistan and Sudan. Currently, most of the refugees they serve are from Africa or Burma (Myanmar), McGlynn said.
As more refugees start new lives in Davenport, Nyanduhura and new RISE AmeriCorps Member Fadilatou Boukari will be assisting families in a variety of ways. They will continue sharing local resources: they recently hosted a trip to the Salvation Army to explain its benefits. They’ll also continue setting up appointments, helping refugees navigate systems, interpreting, and assisting with Tapestry Farm’s many other services, McGlynn said.
Overall, McGlynn said she’s thankful to the RISE AmeriCorps Program for helping to support their growing refugee community. The program gives their site the opportunity to have people with unique insight into the immigrant and refugee experience, she said.
“We’ve wanted to be a RISE site for a long time and it took us a while to build to that point,” McGlynn said. “We’re glad we’re finally there.”