Everywhere In Between: Episode 2 – Home and Community

Everywhere In Between is a road trip across spectrums. Produced by residents of the flyover states, this podcast will tell the stories that aren’t always outlined on the map.


 MORGAN: If you’ve ever watched anything on HGTV, you know the distinction between a house and a home. If a house is a physical structure, a home is the product of intentional work to make that space personal and comfortable. But a home is a lot more than just throw pillows and cozy scented candles. It’s a place to feel seen, welcome, and understood.

Sometimes the process of arriving home is a lot of work, more work than what an Extreme Makeover: Home Edition crew can do in a week. Refugees coming to America often face a long, sometimes never-ending process before they can ever settle in. Luckily, there are people dedicated to helping communities of refugees feel seen, welcome, and understood in the Midwest, even when it seems like everyone else is working to keep the doors locked.

Jacob Reynolds is here to tell us about the people who are doing the work to help refugees find a home in Iowa.

JACOB: When you think of Iowa, probably some of the first things you think about are corn fields, presidential candidates running around all over the place and folksy old white people in overalls. However, Iowa is also home to large populations of refugees, bringing together diverse and vibrant cultures in the middle of corn country.

JACOB: The first major intercession of refugee resettlement in Iowa was when the late Governor Robert D. Ray gave a home for refugees after the end of the Vietnam War, when South Vietnam (and later Laos) fell. There was a deep resistance to accepting refugees from those countries at that time, and President Ford offered money for individual states to do as much as they could to protect the rights of people who were in Southeastern Asian countries. After the group Tai Dam wrote letters to 30 state governments asking to be relocated as a group, Ray decided to help with the cause. Ray conducted a relocation program for the Tai Dam and had over 1,000 resettle in the state in the mid-1970s. This humanitarian effort grew as the state of Iowa accepted more refugees over the next decade, and, according to the Associated Press, Iowa became one of the largest resettlement locations in the United States.

I talked with Matt Walsh, a history professor at Des Moines Area Community College who wrote a book about the plight of the Tai Dam called The Good Governor. Walsh says the group had some hardships getting adjusted in the community.

WALSH: The majority of people polled by the Des Moines Register were against resettlement of refugees–this is a very controversial war, and a lot of people did not want Southeast Asians coming to Iowa. There was a host of reasons. One of the big ones that’s still around today–economics: “They’re gonna take our jobs, they’re gonna work for very cheap, and they’re gonna depress wages.”

JACOB: One of the other issues? Racism. Walsh explains that there were people in Iowa who wanted to keep the state white. They feared outsiders coming in and disrupting their comfort. The Tai Dam as a people, though, were able to work through these problems with the help of the state programs, Walsh says.

WALSH: The state of Iowa’s refugee program is renowned for helping people get off of welfare and getting them jobs. There’s a woman named Colleen Shearer [sp?] who ran job service of Iowa. And she left it the number one place in the country. And she uses the job services of Iowa’s offices to coordinate employment for the Tai Dam and in 5 years about 80% of the Tai Dam have vehicles and in about 5 years about 80% of them have homes.

JACOB: Because of their hardships, the Tai Dam were able to rally around each other as a community and help one another adjust to life in the state, Walsh asserts.

WALSH: A lot of that is because the dedication of the state of Iowa as their sponsors to help these folks get jobs. On the flip side of that is this cultural group–they were the elites from Southeast Asia, political leaders, business leaders, religious leaders. They spoke many languages. They have literacy. So, they have some good foundation for the state of Iowa to work with. They had very powerful leaders who get employed by the state and get set with resettlement. They’ve done it before, and I’ve called them professional refugees. They left northwest Vietnam and went to Laos, they left Laos and went to Thailand and came to Iowa. And it was kind of another move and they pulled their resources to make things work. So, if it was your time to buy a car, the group would pitch in and buy your car. That way you’re not renting or leasing. And they would do the same thing with home ownership.

JACOB: Until recently, Iowa continued to be a major hub for refugees within the United States. The Refugee Services division of the Iowa Department of Human Services was created around the time of Governor Ray’s first appeals to refugees and has continued to work with refugees ever since. It also has supported refugees from Eastern Europe and all the way from Sudan, and was the top carrier of Sudanese refugees within the United States.

WALSH: Iowa was a leader with refugees nationally from 1975 until 2010. They were the only state that resettled refugees–by that I mean the actual state resettled refugees. Every other state in this nation–voluntary groups called voluntary agencies, or “vol ags” for short, they resettled refugees. This would be like the Catholic Church … or Lutheran and Immigration Refugee Services. These organizations did that. And, you know, the Tai Dam today are doing quite well. There’s about 10,000 in our state. But Iowa is no longer a leader in refugee resettlement. The program ended in 2010, and when the Tai Dam celebrated their 40th anniversary in Iowa they had a big celebration at the Capitol Building, and at that very same moment, Governor Branstad of Iowa announced that the state of Iowa should no longer help Syrian refugees in Iowa. So, it’s kind of an interesting situation in how things have changed.

JACOB: I found this shift particularly interesting. I talked with Erica Johnson from American Friends Service Committee of Iowa, a Quaker-based organization that works for the legal rights for immigrants and refugees within the state. Erica has seen first hand how increasing anti-refugee sentiment has affected the individuals she works with.

JOHNSON: A young mom came in a couple weeks ago who was checking on her paperwork that she filed to get for her children who are minors to join her. She’s a refugee from a country that was impacted by the travel ban and it’s taking much, much longer for the application that she filed to bring her minor children to join her than it has in the past and so she was coming in to check on that status and unfortunately all we could do was sort of throw up our hands along with her and join her in her frustration. I mean she sat here in our lobby and was crying because she wants her children to be with her and the U.S. government is making that–is drawing out that process and making a pretty palpable situation for that mom. So, all we could offer was the opportunity to set up a meeting with our member of Congress, Cindy Axne, and we’ve had that meeting request in for actually a couple of months now and we haven’t gotten anywhere–we haven’t heard back from Cindy Axne’s office. So that our members of Congress can hear directly from the people who are directly impacted from the policies that are a result from this nasty rhetoric–from this nasty anti-immigrant rhetoric on the federal level.

JACOB: I reached out to Cindy Axne’s office for a comment, and at the time of this recording I haven’t received a response.

In addition to the unwelcoming environment that many refugees have to navigate, they also face a number of issues adjusting their lifestyle to create a home in the United States. Fortunately, there are many organizations within the state to help refugees from around the world. The Refugee Services division of the Iowa Department of Human Services provides services to refugees within the state, such as groups like the Burmese or more recently refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo. These services include interpretation for non-English-speaking refugees, job skills training and transportation for refugees with a job but no means of getting there; but there are only 90 days of official help from this organization before refugees are mostly left stranded.

Another organization deeply involved in the well-being of refugees–that gives help for a longer period–is the Lutheran Services in Iowa (or LSI). Their Refugee Community Services division helps various groups of refugees find their footing. According to the organization itself, only one percent of the world’s refugees are ever resettled after most of them live in refugee camps, possibly for decades. The refugees who are resettled are connected to support communities like LSI and receive health benefits. After one year in the U.S. they receive the status of Legal Permanent Resident, and then after living in the U.S. for five years may become citizens after they pass the citizenship test. LSI helps educate refugees by teaching them English and how to study for the citizenship tests and they offer economic development programs and help refugees adjust in their new homes.

One other organization, which is based in Des Moines, is the Refugee Alliance of Central Iowa.

STEPHANIE: It’s a voluntary network of service providers, refugee-based ECBOs, or ethnic community based organizations and individuals that kind of collectively make–we come together for the betterment of the refugee communities.

JACOB: That’s Stephanie Moris, the director for the organization.

STEPHANIE: An English class might be a place for them to learn English or a citizenship class might be a place to help them with that process but it’s also a great place for them to socialize and connect to find out and learn about other supports they might need. We also–we have service providers–but we also try and develop our ECBOs as much as possible as well. EMBARCC is a good example, and we also have a few other ECBOs that are starting to pop up and do a great job of supporting their own ethnic communities as well.

JACOB: How is RACI different from other refugee aid organizations?

STEPHANIE: So we’re very different from all of them in that we’re not a service provider. We’re not offering classes, we’re not offering programs or workshops. We’re not looking out for grants or other funding opportunities. We are a collaborative among all these agencies in that we bring together our service providers, our refugee community leaders, our ECBO leaders, to a place where we can all, as an entire community, talk about the issues, make sure we’re aligned with the real needs, making sure that efforts aren’t being duplicitous, and make sure everyone’s communicating to be able to be as effective in terms of not just dollars from grants or other funding opportunities that we’re really being the most effective that we can in terms of reaching refugee needs and serving them.

JACOB: However, organizations like LSI are up against disheartening trends in the United States. According to the LSI report, the U.S. went from accepting nearly 85,000 refugees in 2016 to only 22,500 in 2018 after President Trump has set the ceiling of accepting only 30,000 refugees. Iowa alone went from accepting over 1,000 refugees in 2016 to 383 this past year. That will be harsher this year as even fewer are expected to be accepted. These are residual effects of political rhetoric in recent years, Erica Johnson says.

JOHNSON: The political rhetoric from specifically the 2016 presidential campaign, but going back hundreds of years in this country, this country has always had a difficult time accepting immigrants and refugees no matter where we’re from. So the moment that we’re in is in some ways no different from we’ve been for the past, what, 200, 300 years–however old our country is. But it’s particularly more pronounced right now. I’ve been working in the field for about thirteen years now and the anti-immigrant rhetoric is much more intense now than I’ve seen it in the past. And, so, the intense rhetoric has went from just talking points and debates on cable news to actual policies that are hurting families who live in Iowa.

JACOB: Instead of settling into corn country, many more refugees than usual may languish in refugee camps without a home for years to come. These humane organizations may be forced to work even harder to continue the legacy Governor Ray started in the 1970s.

MORGAN: Amidst the political rhetoric and legislative hurdles, people are at the center of what it takes to find and build a home. Some people block the road, but others pave it, smooth out bumps, and offer alternative routes. In today’s stories, we focused on the organizations that provide resources, not restrictions.

A lot of society is built on narrow definitions of ability, so differences from the norm can quickly become daily challenges. Zach Duff’s story looks at organizations that take these differences and build a community of shared experience and constant support.

ZACH: Being a kid isn’t always easy. It can be especially hard for those who feel isolated because of things beyond their control. Children with serious diseases and disabilities often have a hard time connecting with their classmates and peers because of how different their situations are from those around them. Within Iowa, there are organizations that help build communities for people with special needs. I had a chance to sit down with Brette Dowson, the development director at the Muscular Dystrophy Association and Karen Whitman, the marketing and communications coordinator for the Special Olympics of Iowa. We discussed how their organizations help those with particular needs build a community that help them develop a fellowship with others and help them through shared activities and events.

The Muscular Dystrophy Association is an organization that helps children with muscle diseases by providing funding, treatment centers, and sponsoring events. Muscular Dystrophy is a group of diseases that cause progressive weakness and loss of muscle mass. Brette Dowson shared with me the purpose of the organization over a cup of coffee at a local cafe.

BRETTE: We cover about 43 different types of neuromuscular diseases including muscular dystrophy. ALS is another really common one, which is also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, so anybody who did the ice bucket challenge that was really big a few years ago, I didn’t know anybody who didn’t, a lot of that money went to ALS research which is sponsored by MDA.

ZACH: The children dealing with muscle diseases often have a hard time being able to connect with other children because their struggles are so different from those around them.

BRETTE: Every disease that the MDA covers is considered a rare disease. So a lot of times these kids have never met somebody else that has their same diagnosis. Nobody else in their school that is going through exactly what they are going through and that can be incredibly isolating.

ZACH: While the MDA provides a lot of medical support for the afflicted individuals they also provide a space for kids to just be kids.

BRETTE: My favorite thing that I get to talk about that the MDA does is summer camp. So the MDA summer camp is available to kids diagnosed with muscular dystrophy ages 8 to 17. For a lot of these kids MDA summer camp is the only time all year that they get to go swimming.

ZACH: Brette explained that at camp the children are able to do things that most of us take for granted, such as riding a bike.

BRETTE: Camp is special for these kids because they don’t get those opportunities do except this one time of year. A lot of kids tell us that summer camp is better than Christmas, better than their birthday, better than all those holidays even put together, and it’s truly the best week of the year for them.

ZACH: Summer camp provides an opportunity for the children to socialize in a comfortable environment and create lasting friendships.

BRETTE: Being at MDA summer camp where everyone has similar experiences and similar struggles, it just lets them know that they are not alone and that there is somebody that can relate to them and that can hold their hand and be a friend and can be a support through that. So camp ends at age 17 but those relationships and friendships that start at camp are truly life long.

ZACH: The camp experience continues on in a cycle. As the campers grow into adults, many of them become mentors and role models for their younger counterparts.

BRETTE: We have some campers, depending on their abilities, that come back and actually serve as counselors for camp which is really cool to see. To see them expand on their knowledge and their experience as a camper and then grow that and be able to pass on their expertise to younger generations of campers.

BRETTE: One girl that has a very special place in my heart recently got her driver license and is able to drive an adaptable vehicle. So watching her share that experience with other campers it’s been cool and it just shows that when one person takes that leap and says “yeah I have a muscle disease, but yeah I’m still gonna drive my car to  school and I’m still going to be in band and I’m still going to do all this and that” it shows the other younger kids that look up to them “hey, I can do that too. My life doesn’t have to be defined by my muscle disease.”

ZACH: The MDA summer camp provides a community of mutual experience and support for those living with muscular diseases. This community helps prove that their goals are attainable.

BRETTE: All of these things are possible for our MDA kiddos now. It all starts with MDA summer camps and its so cool that that gets to be the very first building block for them in building their lives.

ZACH: For some kids, The Special Olympics is that building block. The Special Olympics coordinates sporting events for individuals with intellectual disabilities and gives these individuals an opportunity to connect with other people and develop skills that will serve them later in life.

Karen Whitman, the Marketing and Communications Coordinator at Special Olympics Iowa explains that at the Special Olympics, individuals build up a  lot more than physical strength.

KAREN: This gives them the opportunity to stay healthy, stay fit, and then also have the opportunity to compete and build those characteristics that go along with having that competition, throughout the year.

KAREN: The bond with Special Olympic athletes is awesome. Sometimes with sports you get that “competitors don’t like each other because it’s all about the competition” and that type of thing. With our athletes they are there to compete but they are also there to build friendships with the other athletes and to see them succeed.

ZACH: The participants may be competing against one another but that doesn’t stop them from providing support and encouragement to their fellow athletes.

KAREN: It’s very exciting when you go to a Special Olympics sporting event because one moment they’re competing and the next moment they are cheering on those same people they were competing against.

ZACH: Special Olympic events bring together individuals who may have never gotten the chance to meet otherwise.

KAREN: At almost all of our bigger statewide events we have dances and banquets and things that they can participate in and it’s awesome to see them dancing and laughing and sharing stories and everything with other athletes from all across the state. So you might have someone from the Quad Cities and someone from Sioux City interacting, where they would never have had that opportunity had they not become part of Special Olympics.      

ZACH: Special Olympics are an important part in many of the athletes’ lives. The community and friendships they build continue every year when they return to compete.

KAREN: Those who compete will compete for years. Our youngest athlete is 8 and the oldest is 78. And so they keep coming back year after year because they just enjoy the camaraderie that comes along with the statewide competitions and competing.

ZACH: Karen explains that the benefits provided through Special Olympics go beyond the lines of a track.

KAREN: Athletes that are involved in Special Olympics are given the opportunity to build friendships that they will have for their entire lives. It will help them to interact with people that they would normally wouldn’t interact with which will help them build those friendships and build those opportunities to grow as an individual.

ZACH: Karen believes the Special Olympics community is so effective because desiring support and interaction with others is human nature.

KAREN: The human race is very much so a community based personality. So them having the opportunity to have a friend that they can call whenever something comes up, or they can run these by or even find a job where they can work beside someone who helps them continue to grow in the community by giving them the strength and courage to step out of their comfort zone.

ZACH: If you are interested in volunteering for the Muscular Dystrophy Association or Special Olympics community please visit their websites for more information at www.mda.org and www.specialolympics.org.

Graphics by Mia Tirado.

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