Reach out to refugees: How you can volunteer and why you should

In my last post, I discussed my background with Bowling Green refugees and why I decided to explore this topic through my blog. I want this blog to be a resource for understanding a group of people who are often ignored. I’ll consider myself successful if even one person wants to learn more by getting involved. I’ve put together something that shows the human side of refugees, who so often get lost in statistics.

The International Center, as a refugee resettlement organization, is the best place to start if you’re interested in volunteering. While the International Center welcomes anyone willing to help out, they are in need of people who can teach English to refugees adjusting to their new lives. It may sound intimidating, but you could gain a lot from the experience.

A recent Forbes article included communication skills as one of the most sought after skills employers look for. Learning to communicate with refugees, who don’t speak English as their first language and may need things explained differently, can make you a stronger communicator.

Volunteers I’ve spoken to, Caleb and Laura Benningfield, who work with refugees seem to value the experience and feel like they’ve learned so much more than they’ve taught. This is a great attitude to have because we have to be careful not to force our cultural expectations on refugees, who are individuals in their own right. The International Center also recommends this in their volunteer manual.

“The volunteer’s role is not to rescue. Refugees tend to have a high level of adaptability and resourcefulness; otherwise they would not have made it to the US.”

Ultimately, placing yourself in the position of a student learning from refugees keeps you humble and open to what you can learn.

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Behind the scenes: How do refugees come to America?

In previous posts I’ve talked about how refugees create new lives for themselves by building businesses and fellowship. However, before they even get the chance to make a new life in America there’s a process they have to navigate. Rejection can be costly, according to the International Center Volunteer Manual.

“If the answer is no, refugees have other options: a. Return home. b. Stay where they are. c. Try another country.”

For refugees the process begins the same way. They are threatened, for many reasons like racial, religious, political, or other persecution. Often they take only their immediate families and the clothes on their back, according to the International Center.

After leaving everything behind the process of resettlement begins. After refugees make their way to a neighboring country they apply for protection through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

“The agency is mandated to lead and coordinate international action to protect refugees and solve refugee problems worldwide,” according to the UNHCR.

If, and only if, they are granted protection they begin living in a refugee camp. Safety is not insured. Women, in particular, are vulnerable to sexual abuse.

“They probably don’t have enough to eat; it is usually illegal for them to leave the camp,” said the International Center.

Waiting is a part of each step in the process. Sometimes resettlement can take many years.

The UNHCR determines which cases are suitable for resettlement by conducting screenings and interviews. After filling out documentation they speak with a U.S. official.

“Eligibility for refugee status is determined on a case-by-case basis through an interview with a specially-trained USCIS officer,” said the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.

“The interview is non-adversarial and is designed to obtain information about an individual’s refugee claim and eligibility for resettlement to the United States.”

If they are accepted, a VOLAG agency takes over the next step of the process.

According to the International Center, “The VOLAG Agency to which they are assigned decides where they will go and with what resettlement agency. The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI), with which the International Center is affiliated, is one of these resettlement agencies.”

Refugees that pursue resettlement face a rigorous process. For many, however, it is better than the life they come from.

The following video is courtesy of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Bowling Green Burmese Refugees Support each Other

This week I spoke with Vung Dim of the Bowing Green International Center. My interview with Dim focused on gaining more information about why Burmese refugees particularly settle in Bowling Green, and why they choose to live in the Lover’s Lane apartment complex. I also gained some insight into how diverse language is within Burma, as not everyone from Burma speaks Burmese.

When she lived in Texas, Dim volunteered as a translator and interpreter for people from Burma. She decided she wanted to go into this as a job.

Currently at her job at the Bowling Green International Center, Dim works as a scheduler while helping out with translation and interpreting as needed.

One thing that Dim wanted to get across in our discussion was that not everyone from Burma speaks the same language.

“Not everyone speak Burmese,” said Dim. “They have their own language and dialect.”

Burma is very diverse in terms of the languages people speak. One of the things Dim does is decide which language someone speaks based on their name. “I am Zo,” said Dim. “I belong to Chin.” Zomi is a language within Chin, which is a group of people who live within Burma.

Burma gained its named from the Burmese who make up the majority in Burma. Although many minorities live within Burma the name stuck over time.

“We cannot just change,” said Dim. “We cannot change it easily.”

When I asked Dim about why Burmese refugees choose to settle in the Lover’s Lane apartments she had the following to say.

Burmese refugees, just like everyone else, seek out people like them, because community is so important in our lives.