Nearly 60 million people are displaced worldwide due to conflict, natural disasters, economic struggles, and more. About 70,000 refugees were granted residence in the United States in 2015, with over three million people welcomed into the U.S. since 1975. Given the political climate and the upcoming presidential election, the status of refugees in this country has become quite a contentious topic. With World Refugee Day coming up on June 20, many organizations and agencies want to spread awareness and support for the refugee plight.
One such organization, Refugee Support Services (RSS), a nonprofit located in Charlotte, NC, is doing just that. Much as their name suggests, they provide support services for refugees who have recently arrived in the area. North Carolina receives about 2,200 refugees per year, and Charlotte alone resettles about 650 people. Their extensive reach and impressive resources make this organization a highly worthy recipient of the 2016 NobleCause grant, which they plan to use to increase their volunteer base.
According to RSS Executive Director, Rachel Humphries, the NobleCause grant has already allowed her nonprofit to hire a volunteer coordinator, Theresa Matheny. The volunteer onboarding process is now much faster for RSS, and training events are taking place monthly. Matheny has already developed a one-hour training course called Refugee 101, which educates the public about refugees, who they are, how they become refugees, and how they got to the U.S. The training also highlights the struggles they face once they get to the U.S.
RSS’s most valuable program, Fruitful Friendships, will also start training bimonthly to recruit more volunteers. Fruitful Friendships is, according to Humphries, “A family-to-family or individual-to-individual mentoring program that helps refugees navigate our culture.” This program was so named because the mentors are asked to bring fruit for the people they meet. Such a simple gesture, and yet it starts a conversation, even for people who don’t speak the language or have much in common in terms of culture. “Start with something as basic as fruit, and you can build a connection,” Humphries explains.
HELP FOR THOSE WHO NEED IT MOST
The Refugee Support Services Help Center is open to refugees in the area to assist them with nearly every facet of American life possible. “We are a bit like Ancient Scribes,” Humphries shares. “We have 16 volunteers who are present whenever the center is open. People bring in a stack of mail, we help them read it. They have questions about school, we help them communicate with teachers.” Such simple things to an established American who has lived in the culture their entire lives, but something that is overwhelming at best for someone who doesn’t speak or understand the language.
RSS also gets plenty of questions about green cards or citizenship, and they help these families and individuals fill out the necessary applications. There is also an education aspect: RSS partners with the public library which offers a literacy hour, a story hour for children, and parent/children literacy workshops. Central Piedmont Community College provides English as a Second Language (ESL) and citizenship classes to help the refugees learn the language and become citizens. They also have a monthly visit from the local police or fire departments to help refugees acclimate and engage with authority figures. Approximately 42 million people become refugees due to persecution or conflict, many of whom have not had positive interactions with authority. This meeting of local fire and police departments help to eliminate fear and misunderstanding.
RSS also provides a sense of community, and aims to include their Help Center patrons in a variety of ways to help them acclimate to the culture here. Something as simple as a “Women’s Tea,” which RSS does quarterly, can help refugee women discuss their concerns, struggles, and cultural differences in a safe setting. The last Women’s Tea focused on “What’s in Your Purse?” and shared with refugee women why American women carry bags, what’s in there, and why they should carry (or not carry) certain items. Other topics have been raised, including women’s issues, from childbirth to feminine hygiene to domestic violence. As one woman said during a recent Tea, “This is very important!”
Most astounding is the amount of food RSS provides in their Help Center. RSS partners with The Society of St. Andrews, which runs a “gleaning” project with local farms and markets. The society “gleans” vegetables and fruits from willing participants – to the tune of 1,000 lbs of fresh vegetables and fruit every week! There is also a tilapia farm that gives the Help Center 1,200 lbs of fresh tilapia once a month. This is no small feat, especially for a nonprofit with such a small volunteer base. But, as Humphries explains, that’s all changing.
GROWING AND EXPANDING
Thanks to the NobleCause grant, Humphries says their organization is expanding very quickly, and as a result, their goals for recruitment and outreach have at least doubled. “In 2015, we served 450 refugees. Yesterday, in our Help Center alone, we had 155 refugees,” Humphries explains. With the help of the grant, the new goal for RSS is to triple the service hours provided in the Help Center. They are also aiming to double the number of Fruitful Friends, where they currently have 30 members. Thanks to Matheny, eight potential Fruitful Friends are coming to the next training session. Matheny is also working on creating connection points for volunteers so they can build a community amongst themselves. As a Fruitful Friend for 10 years before being hired as the volunteer coordinator, Matheny hopes to organize volunteer dinners to help improve communication and sharing to streamline their services. Once those goals are met, the plan is to hire an education coordinator and a communications coordinator.
To connect local volunteers and refugees in personal relationships in order to empower refugees and enrich our community.
THE RIGHT FOCUS
As part of the NobleCause grant, it is to be expected that recipients like RSS are volunteer-based and passionate about finding people who want to promote their cause and their message. Refugee Support Services’s volunteers really seem to embody the idea of volunteer service, and they strongly believe in the organization’s message: “To connect local volunteers and refugees in personal relationships in order to empower refugees and enrich our community.” The general approach to mentoring with the Fruitful Friends program is that each volunteer brings his or her own passions to the table, and interacts with those seeking support based on what they know and love.
With this passion, volunteers and mentors are able to support refugees who are in the middle of a huge transition, and the volunteers also get to see how their services are directly affecting the lives of refugees. Refugee Support Services Communications Volunteer and Fruitful Friend, Marci Mroz, who was recognized as Volunteer of the Year in 2010 by the state of North Carolina, shares this story:
Nora had a very amazing and arduous refugee journey from the Central Highlands of Vietnam. She was separated from her first husband for three years, traveled to the U.S. with four kids in tow, and then experienced domestic violence, eye surgery, and became a single mother and head of her household. She did all of this while coping with the trials and tribulations of raising teenaged boys, all having some emotional difficulties. Nora is a very resilient women who tries hard to raise her children with good values and has demonstrated a solid work ethic. She learned English and has maintained a steady, difficult, low-wage job at the CLT airport for many years.
Her youngest child, Lisa, is a shining example of the great success a refugee family can have in America. Lisa has a truly “winning” personality, and has been a charming child from the time she attended ESL classes as a preschooler to today, even as a teenager. She has managed to get the support of various adults in the community, and has been a participant in Girls’ Club, a local and traveling soccer team (Charlotte Urban Eagles), NC Dance Theatre’s REACH! program, Girls on the Run, and Communities in Schools. Lisa has also volunteered whenever she can during school vacations at the Refugee Help Center (distributing fresh vegetables and supervising children). She is always ready, willing, and able to help — and does so with a beautiful smile and a joyous spirit. She has truly learned and always practices the value of “giving back!”
The stories from RSS are incredibly touching, and highlight just how much people who simply try to make a difference really can. Entering another country can be terrifying, especially with no one to help you navigate your way. Organizations like Refugee Support Services truly emphasize the impact that everyday Americans can have on the lives of refugees. To support Refugee Support Services and all the amazing things they do, you can donate here.
Do you want to volunteer with organizations like Refugee Support Services? Find meaningful service opportunities with NobleHour!
The NobleCause grants, organized by NobleHour.com, were made possible by an anonymous donor within the GiveWell Community Foundation, which serves Polk County, Florida.
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By NobleHour Special Contributor:
Latasha Doyle is a writer and long term care volunteer living outside of Denver, Colorado. When she’s not writing or volunteering, she enjoys crocheting, Netflix marathons, and planning her next trip.