As natural and political disasters reshape whole countries and families flee in the wake of real danger, many Western cities feel the ripple effect of an earthquake or an invaded capital as an influx of refugees.
Recently, the United States has seen an increase in refugees from both Afghanistan and Haiti, after a tense regime change and a devastating earthquake, respectively. Those families caught in the (often literal) crossfire have made exhausting moves to new homes.
Chicago’s Brandon Lee, the communications director for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) says “folks are arriving and moving into neighborhoods and communities and it’s important to support the organizations that are doing the welcoming work.”
Lee says that communicating with your children about refugees is important to create empathetic and globally minded adults, but it’s also necessary because it’s likely they will have a refugee classmate at some point.
“For young people, it’s important to know that there are people their age moving halfway across the world and coming into new schools and meeting new people and that’s such an important part of growing up,” he says.
Preparing and supporting your children to be kind and welcoming is integral, he says, as is being connected enough to the school to know what support is needed.
“Willing to talk and listen and being patient is key – there are language barriers and cultural barriers but it really is about being patient and willing to have conversations,” he adds.
For younger children, emphasizing that they are safe while you communicate about refugees is important, while for older children and teenagers, giving them the option to volunteer can help them feel that they are making a difference.
The ICIRR is an umbrella organization that supports many immigrant and refugee advocacy organizations including RefugeeOne, the Muslim Women’s Resource Center, the Syrian Community Network, and the Middle Eastern Immigrant and Refugee Alliance. Many of these organizations rely on volunteers to help teach English, watch younger children and provide a social safety net.
“The ICIRR is part of the refugee action network – it’s made up of all of those organizations,” Lee says. “Refugee resettlement remains a priority and those groups are doing the on-the-ground work.”
These organizations expect an influx of refugees from Afghanistan this fall. Families interested in supporting refugees and immigrants can volunteer directly through those organizations or can choose to donate in monthly or one-time installments.
RefugeeOne allows volunteers under 18 so long as they are accompanied by a parent or guardian. Parents can also sign up for email alerts in case of donation drives and calls for volunteers.
Local organizations that support refugees
RefugeeOne provides resettlement services, English language training, workforce development, immigration assistance and women’s services. They also support youth and young adults, and provide trauma-informed health and mental health care designed specifically for displaced refugees and immigrants. The organization started a sewing studio in 2017 to help refugees and immigrants develop marketable job skills.
The Muslim Women’s Resource Center offers English language classes, preparation for citizenship tests, healthy living classes and assistance in applying for AABD, All Kids, Food Stamps, Medicaid, TANF, SSI and WIC Clinics. The Center also runs an internship program where interns recruited from local universities tutor children and youth.
The Syrian Community Network works to stabilize families by providing house, social services, education and mental health care. The organization works to fulfill a family’s basic human needs in order to allow them to healthily adjust to a new home. Their Women at the Wheel program was the first comprehensive driver education program designed specifically for refugee women.
Founded in 2009, the Middle Eastern Immigrant and Refugee Alliance is committed to the well-being and self-sufficiency of Middle Eastern refugees, immigrants and asylees in Chicago. The nonprofit offers vocational empowerment programs, assists with green card applications and naturalization petitions, helps with accessing government services like healthcare and throws community events.
The National Immigrant Justice Center provides legal services to those seeking asylum. The organization relies on the work of pro-bono attorneys to provide direct legal services and advocates for refugees through “policy reform, impact litigation and public education.” They also support eligible youth applying for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), survivors of human trafficking, LGBTQ individuals seeking safety from persecution and more.
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