By Laura Drummond
Kari Miller was a second-grade teacher in Charlottesville when, one day, she saw a student fall on the playground and break his arm. After the injury, it soon became apparent that the child, a refugee, had incomplete paperwork, meaning a guardian could not be contacted to give the school the green light to administer pain medication. Miller sat with the child as he suffered for hours until family members could be reached and secure transportation to pick him up.
The experience inspired Miller to found International Neighbors, an organization dedicated to providing support to area refugee families, who, she says, are an under-resourced community whose members “are forced to suffer because they don’t have a network. It is so unfair—refugees have already endured so much.”
And as the pandemic has unfolded, the challenges of being a stranger in a foreign land have only become more pronounced.
Fewer than 1 percent of refugees are resettled worldwide, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Of those, about 250 refugees and Special Immigrant Visa holders make it to Charlottesville each year. By the time they arrive, they have experienced tragic circumstances, undergone rigorous vetting through the United States Refugee Resettlement Program, and traveled to a place unfamiliar in its language and landscape, customs and culture. They almost immediately find themselves in debt, owing the U.S. State Department and a resettlement agency the cost of their resettlement, an average of more than $1,000 per person, reports The New York Times.
In 2015, Miller, now executive director of International Neighbors, connected her injured student’s family with a local family to help navigate their new community. That gesture started the neighbor-to-neighbor support system that has become the foundation of IN. Five years later, “We currently have 58 family matches and a long list of people who want to be connected to a family,” Miller says.
The organization has expanded as other needs have come to light. With about 100 volunteers, IN now offers support to more than 300 refugee families—whether that means arranging doctor appointments or teaching them to sew with refurbished sewing machines. “We try to help our neighbors strive to thrive in five years,” Miller says.
As the pandemic has persisted, International Neighbors has escalated its efforts. “Refugees are 60 percent more likely to work in sectors of the economy impacted most by COVID-19,” reports the International Rescue Committee, citing research from the Center for Global Development and Refugees International.
“Financial restraints are always first and foremost,” Miller says, but “these are folks working hourly jobs who lost their livelihood. They are very concerned about being able to pay rent.” In response, IN created the Neighbor Needs Emergency Fund in March, which has so far raised more than $80,000 to assist with urgent financial necessities like eviction prevention and medical-related expenses.
Other needs are less obvious. “Every day I learn something more about how confusing it is to live in our community as a refugee,” Miller says. A simple task like laundry, for example, is a hardship for refugees. Lack of transportation means dependency on coin-operated machines where they live, spending an average of $8 per load and sharing facilities with as many as 200 tenants. And as if there wasn’t enough going on, there’s also a national coin shortage, which has exacerbated the difficulties of doing laundry.
In early August, International Neighbors introduced the Change for Change quarter drive, distributing collection cans to small businesses around Charlottesville, with donations going directly to refugee families in the IN network. Splendora’s Gelato was the first to collect donations. “The people who do the work for that program really do address needs outside of what I would have ever thought about,” says Splendora’s owner PK Ross.
Upon receiving $32 in quarters, which covers about four loads of laundry, a Rwandan refugee says, “This is a big help. I won’t have to walk a mile to get change, or begin washing and not have enough coins to finish.”
“The little things are a big deal for our neighbors. Life is hard in so many ways. Just making one little thing easier makes a big difference,” says IN Communications Director Jennifer MacAdam-Miller.
Another recent effort to make things easier is the Groceries on the Go program. Food insecurity is a persistent hardship for refugees that has worsened during the pandemic. Relying on public transportation and in-person shopping means facing greater risks of COVID-19 exposure.
So IN volunteers have been shopping for refugee families on the side. When community members do their grocery shopping, they can add culturally appropriate foods and other essentials to their orders and drop them off to refugee families. Genevieve Lyons, IN volunteer and program coordinator, says, “Grocery shopping for yourself can feel like such a daunting task. These are hard times for everybody, but these people are affected a lot more. Every time I’m going out and taking that risk, I should be helping somebody else.”
In addition to financial assistance, efforts to combat social isolation are of crucial importance during this time. While many people are now connecting virtually, most refugee families don’t have computers or internet access. IN received a number of laptop donations, but there is still a barrier of technological illiteracy. “You almost can’t participate in the world right now, and it’s very isolating,” MacAdam-Miller says.
As public school classes have moved online, the divide has worsened. To make education more equitable for refugee students, International Neighbors recently established Virtual Learning Centers to assist English language learning students with online learning. With help from donors, volunteers, and a grant from the National Parents Union, IN offers supervision and support to 18 K-4 students across three “learning pods.” The students are refugees who most recently arrived in the U.S. and those most in need of support online.
Volunteer Kristin Thomas Sancken, who has been influential in getting the Virtual Learning Centers up and running, says, “I don’t think people have any idea of how desperate the situation of online learning is for newly arrived refugees. The first day, none of the kids knew that computers had to be plugged into power. None of them knew how to connect to WiFi. Then, they were expected to log onto classes at very precise times, or else they are marked as absent.”
IN hopes to expand its services to more families and intends to keep the program running until public schools return to in-person instruction, but resources are limited. At the moment, IN is in need of volunteers to help at the Virtual Learning Centers, as well as people who can offer technical support to refugee families in their homes. In September, IN established the Access and Equity Fund, which is accepting donations to cover the cost of instruction, school supplies, child-sized face masks, forehead thermometers, craft and playground supplies, and passenger van transportation.
Miller says, “If you feel like you can’t do anything, it’s not true. Because all these folks want is a lifeline. And they deserve that. They truly are the most amazing, resilient folks in Charlottesville.”