By Anna Berger
For newly-arrived refugees in the United States, the worries are many. How will I learn English? Where will I live? How do I get help for my medical condition? How do I enroll my children in school, and who will help them to get to school everyday? How do I make friends here? At Community Refugee and Immigration Services, Church World Service’s Ohio affiliate agency for refugee resettlement, we assist clients with these concerns, helping them to navigate their new lives in the U.S.
Among the services that we provide is the acquiring of the physical items clients need to make a new life, and donations from CWS help make this possible. Many refugees arrive with just one or two suitcases each–the same number of suitcases you or I might take with us for a two-week vacation. But these suitcases and their contents are the only things in the world that a refugee owns. Bedsheets? Silverware? Laundry detergent? A refugee probably has none of these things that most of us view as essential to a home.
CWS has graciously given us school supplies, household supplies, and baby items to distribute to clients in the last several months, and the response from clients who receive these items has been wonderful. As the person at CRIS responsible for distributing donations to new arrivals, it’s a great feeling to know that I can easily give them the items they need in order to smooth the adjustment period. Since Columbus City Schools started the academic year in August, we have been able to pass out school supplies to every newly arrived CRIS child client, and multiple mothers sitting in our waiting room with tiny babies in their laps have been overjoyed to be handed diaper bags printed with monkeys or Mickey Mouse and filled with toys and baby clothes. While we typically purchase the essentials for clients at local discount stores, receiving donations means that we don’t have to spend any of clients’ limited financial resources to purchase these items. This means more money for rent, a bus pass or even an interview outfit to help them nab their first American job, an essential step towards self-sufficiency.
CRIS clients who have benefited from CWS’s generosity include a Syrian family with two young children who received a diaper bag filled with baby items when they arrived at the Columbus airport, Colombian and Somali families who received school kits for their children and Bhutanese-Nepali families who received kitchen supplies for their new apartments. CRIS caseworker Jhuma Acharya recently brought CWS School Kits to his client Jacqueline, a single mother of five from the Congo. Navigating single motherhood presents extra challenges for Jacqueline as she transitions to life in the U.S. Receiving school kits–all of which contained pencils, notebooks, pens, and other school supplies–for each of her children meant that Jacqueline had one less thing to worry about. “Their eyes were so happy when they pulled everything out of the bags. The kids were sitting on the floor together, going through the items, and they all looked up at me and smiled,” Jhuma remembers about the moment he brought the school supplies to the family’s apartment. Jacqueline expressed through the Kinyarwanda interpreter (she is just beginning to learn English) how fortunate she and her children feel to be cared for in this way by CRIS.
After all, the items that we give to our clients transcend their physical properties–each item signifies a step towards building a new home. A cooking pot means the ability to prepare traditional food for dinner. A notebook and a pen mean that a family’s children will be prepared to go to school and learn English, propelling them towards a meaningful future. A pillow means that a refugee has a safe place to lay his or her head at night in preparation for a new day of exploring the U.S. After years of displacement and instability, these items serve as a reminder to clients that they finally have a place where they can build a permanent home.
A recent graduate of Kenyon College, Anna Berger is currently participating in the Episcopal Service Corps and working at CRIS as a Pre-Arrival Specialist Intern. Her responsibilities center around assisting case managers with pre-arrival preparations for clients; this includes coordinating for beds, furniture and welcome kits of basic household items, ensuring that each newly arrived family has the appropriate items to fit its specific needs.