On this World Refugee Day and every day, RISE AmeriCorps members from refugee backgrounds are using their perspectives to meet needs and create change within their communities.
Sixty-eight percent of RISE AmeriCorps members come from an immigrant and refugee background and about a quarter of current members are refugees themselves. Refugee members fill important gaps while representing diverse communities from Burma, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and Eritrea.
In 2022, RISE AmeriCorps Members are advancing opportunities and building self-sufficiency for fellow refugees with training in job skills, digital literacy, English skills and more. At EMBARC in Des Moines for example, RISE AmeriCorps Member Pray Meh is leading a class to prepare other Karenni refugees from Burma for the U.S. citizenship test.
RISE AmeriCorps Alum Hilaire Tshombe is especially motivated to use his experiences as a refugee to lift up others. Originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, he said he wanted to help people overcome the same financial and cultural roadblocks he lived through several years ago.
“I know what I went through when I came here. I know life was not easy. You have to figure out the city or the schools. I struggled a lot but I didn't give up,” Tshombe said. “And from there I said [to clients], this is what I went through and this is the strategies I used to overcome these challenges.”
At CMC, Tshombe provided cultural orientation and taught life skills to help new refugees adapt to life in Iowa. Tshombe soon became a leader at CMC among the large refugee community in Cedar Rapids from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
In the early days of RISE AmeriCorps from 2015 to 2019, the program focused entirely on serving people who came to the U.S. as refugees. Currently, RISE AmeriCorps serves both refugees who fled their countries and other immigrants without this status, such as the Latinx community.
Refugee members were essential for initial connections between RISE AmeriCorps and local communities. In the first years, many projects revolved around serving youth from the large Burma refugee population in Des Moines, Waterloo and Marshalltown. Members met weekly to tutor high school students and hosted workshops for recent refugee high school graduates. The sessions set the group up for success while planning their next steps into the workforce.
RISE AmeriCorps steadily expanded with an influx of more diverse new host sites, such as Oakridge Neighborhood, Catherine McAuley Center and IC Compassion, which focused on serving refugees primarily from Central and East Africa.
Later in 2019, the RISE AmeriCorps Program opened up to immigrants of all backgrounds, rather than just those with legal refugee status. The organization’s mission to improve self-sufficiency through work readiness training was solidified into a central focus.
In 2020, intense challenges hit many refugee communities during the COVID-19 pandemic and the devastating derecho storm in Cedar Rapids. But RISE AmeriCorps members responded swiftly and effectively to both disasters. Refugee members also made the difference in quickly connecting with and assisting their communities.
In response to COVID-19, members offered increased support services and translated information and resources in over 10 languages specific to refugee communities and small ethnic minority groups. Without refugee members to engage their communities, essential information and support during COVID-19 may have missed communities.
When refugee families were displaced from the hurricane-level winds in August, 2020, RISE AmeriCorps members from the refugee community were essential. Their interpretation skills for specific communities were vital for quickly connecting the support the refugees needed. Members also served thousands of hot meals, organized supply drives, and knocked doors to assess needs and find help.
RISE AmeriCorps Alumna Junnie Lukama, who is from the Democratic Republic of Congo, was instrumental in assisting many African refugees whose apartment buildings were damaged in downtown Cedar Rapids. In one woman’s time of crisis, Lukama and the team at the Intercultural Center of Iowa were there to lead her to essential resources and strategize a way out of a temporary shelter. Lukama's assistance made the difference in getting the woman, her disabled husband and multiple children into secure housing.
“One thing I learned: you may not realize how much you’re doing for someone, but to them it could be a huge thing,” Lukama said. “She was so grateful for our help.”
Simply put, refugees are inseparable from the core of the RISE AmeriCorps Program. Without refugee members’ countless collaboration, hard work and perseverance since 2015, RISE AmeriCorps would not be where it is today.
As RISE AmeriCorps Alum Wynton Karanja said on behalf of members, “Know that you’re doing good work and also hard work."