Every first Friday of the month, Ethnic Community Based Organizations (ECBOs) come together to share educational resources at the Refugee Alliance of Central Iowa’s (RACI) Education Workgroup. Over Zoom, they discuss topics ranging from technology tools for students and families, to the Black Lives Matter protests in Summer 2020, to COVID-19 vaccinations.
Before the pandemic, some members had trouble attending the meetings during the workday, but now that everything has moved online, more and more groups are able to attend. This is just one way that organizations across Iowa have worked to overcome barriers presented by the pandemic.
“Over the past year, I have seen our refugee-serving ECBOs come together and truly put themselves out there in ways they have never done before because they know it’s for the betterment of their communities,” says Stephanie Moris, director of RACI.
The COVID-19 pandemic caused significant changes for most people. For refugee and immigrant populations, it has only furthered some of the challenges communities often face.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, refugees are “persons who are outside their country of origin for reasons of feared persecution, conflict, generalized violence, or other circumstances that have seriously disturbed public order and, as a result, require international protection.”
Since the 1970s, over 30,000 refugees have resettled in Iowa, writes Moris in a piece for the Des Moines Register. And over the last decade, the number of refugees has doubled due to war and other humanitarian crises, according to the UN Refugee Agency’s 2019 report. Between 2010 and 2019, 20 million refugees were granted protection from other countries worldwide.
“The largest community in Iowa right now is refugees from Burma. However, the largest incoming population is refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo,” says Moriah Morgan, the data and reporting manager and Waterloo interim office manager for EMBARC, the Ethnic Minorities of Burma Advocacy and Research Center.
“It’s interesting to me because a lot of people forget that there’s a lot of cultural diversity in our own backyards…I often talk about the diverse refugee population that exists in Iowa and [people] have no idea that they’re here,” Morgan says.
Students and Education
Accessible education is one of the issues commonly faced by many refugee communities. In light of increased challenges brought on by the pandemic, organizations across Iowa have continued working to support refugee students and their families.
At Des Moines Public Schools (DMPS), Bilingual Family Liaisons serve as links between the district and families. Bilingual Family Liaison Supervisor Laura McAtee says that they work with bilingual families to ensure their students can succeed.
“Sometimes students bring a lot with them to class,” McAtee says. “It could be parents [have] been fighting, no food in the home, the family being evicted, many social issues that they can bring to school with them. And then teachers expect them to function at 100% when they do not know what is happening with this child.”
In the past year, the pandemic has only worsened these types of challenges. In addition to public health concerns, families are facing issues like food insecurity, access to technology, and lower retention rates at schools.
The pandemic threw everyone for a loop, says Pablo Ortega, the program director for English Language Learners for DMPS.
“It’s very difficult for students to thrive in a fully virtual community,” Ortega says. “Some students can, but not all students. That’s exacerbated by a language barrier.”
When Re Moe, a Crisis and Advocacy Advocate at EMBARC, and her family arrived in the United States in 2009, they first settled in Pennsylvania, before moving to Omaha, and then Iowa.
“We moved due to the language barrier in those places because there’s nobody here to help us with interpretation and plus I was young and I [was] still learning English at that time,” she says. “I didn’t have enough experience as well to help my parents back then…I will say we’re lucky because since we arrived here, we’ve had more opportunities like education.”
During the pandemic, programs like EMBARC have also worked to make sure that public health information is available in various dialects and languages so that families can stay informed.
In the Kids on Course program in Cedar Rapids, students and their families speak more than twelve languages and dialects at Hoover Elementary School alone.
“A lot of those students when they come here or transfer to our school have a tough time learning, especially at the beginning because that is such a shift for trying to learn English while also trying to learn your entire school day in that language,” says Madison Keith, Hoover Elementary site manager.
Turning to Technology
Throughout the pandemic, organizations have gotten creative to stay connected with families. In addition to creating take-home kits for enrichment activities and making weekly phone calls and at-home visits, many groups prioritized making technology more accessible.
Iowa Congolese Organization and Center for Healing (ICOACH) began a program to teach parents how to use computers.
“A lot of kids were studying at home who were struggling with virtual learning,” says Boaz Nkingi, founder and president of ICOACH. “So we had a lot of parents requesting that we train them to use computers so they can better assist their children when they’re learning at home.”
Similarly, at EMBARC, the Youth Navigator program transitioned into a Youth Technology Navigator program, through which high school students created educational materials about technology and the U.S. education system for families and will provide direct support services to those in the community.
During the switch to online learning last March, Bilingual Family Liaisons (BFLs) in Des Moines had yard visits with families.
“They would just go, and they would meet the family up in the front yard with a mask,” McAtee says. During yard visits, video calls, and other trainings, liaisons would direct families on how to turn on computers and log in to Zoom, Infinite Campus, and other sites parents needed to access.
Gustavo Adame, a parent at Hiatt Middle School in Des Moines, says in an email interview that the BFL program has helped him feel more connected to the school.
“It allows families to feel welcome and know that language is not a barrier,” Adame says. “Without this program, I would have felt lost in knowing how things work in a school setting.”
“[BFLs] are connected with their communities at every level,” McAtee says. “When the BFLs say, ‘I’m having this program,’ ‘I’m having this event,’ believe me: [the families] show up to these events. Why? Because they believe in them, and they trust them. When it comes to our immigrant and refugee [families], that’s how you build communities: by trust and by understanding.”
What Comes Next
Refugee-serving organizations say that volunteering, donating, and reaching out to legislators are the best ways to support their work.
“A lot of the time, programs that we do require volunteers,” Morgan says. “So for example, our junior high one-on-one mentoring program, we recruit volunteers that are usually college students or local community members and they’re able to do one-on-one mentoring to support a refugee junior high student. And we can’t do that without volunteer support.”
Many organizations also work with other groups to best help communities and to meet the needs that are most urgent.
“If an issue is important to you, seek to find grassroots organizations that are doing the work,” Ortega says. “I would definitely encourage people to get involved in [this], especially young people. They bring a lot of energy, bring a lot of hopefulness, bring a lot of creativity that is very necessary.”
For more information on how to support these organizations, visit their websites: EMBARC, ICOACH, Refugee Alliance of Central Iowa, Kids on Course, and Des Moines Public Schools English Language Learners and Bilingual Family Liaisons.