Amy Hill: RefugeeOne

Transcript of
Interviewee: Amy Hill
Interviewer: Dorothy Nygren, Richard Ludka
Date: February 13, 2015
Place: RefugeeOne - 4753 N. Broadway
Transcriber: Richard Ludka
Total Time: 29:43

Copyright © 2015 Edgewater Historical Society

DN: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk about RefugeeOne with us.

AH: It is my pleasure, thank you for coming.

DN: I’d like you to give us a little background on RefugeeOne. When it started, what the mission of it is and the kind of programs that you might have for refugees.

AH: RefugeeOne has been around I think since September 1st 1982… I believe that is the date it was founded. We’ve had a few different names over the years, but we’ve been known as RefugeeOne over the past few years. And we’ve been here in Edgewater pretty much since our inception serving newly arriving refugee families from all over the world since then. We offer a variety of services to support refugees. Our mission is to help our families achieve self-reliance and live lives of dignity here in their new homes in Chicago.

We have a variety of services to help refugees achieve dignified self reliance. Some of the services include case management which helps our clients access their public benefits, access medical care, and make sure they are getting all of their basic needs met essentially. The case managers really serve as the main point person coordinating all services in a wraparound way to make sure the clients are getting those basic needs – food, health care, and public benefits.


We also have an employment program which is really important. Our clients are expected to be self-reliant, financially self-reliant or independent within three months of arriving in the country. So our employment program is really challenging and an invigorating job of helping new refugees find jobs, build resumes and build job skills.

We have a housing program which helps them find housing and make sure that all their housing needs are being met – you know their gas, and their electricity, and any maintenance issues they might have, and advocate for them around housing needs.

We have an immigration program to help them adjust their status as needed, their eligibility for their green card after one year and citizenship after five years. So we help them with that.

We have a women’s empowerment program to meet the unique needs of women. We have a mental health program to help refugees who might be struggling to adjust, or suffering from PTSD or other mental health needs based on their experiences.

And then we also have a youth program. I am the manager of the youth program. So we provide services for refugee youth – help them get into school, provide an after-school program, tutoring and mentoring, and lots of enrichment activities just to help ease their adjustment into their new lives as American students. We believe those are all the services and the most important part of our work is that we work collaboratively together. Each family comes with their own unique story and own unique needs. So we really just work together as a team here at RefugeeOne to make sure that all of those needs are getting met, whatever they might be.

DN: How many refugees do you serve in any given year, roughly?

AH: We serve over five-hundred newly arriving refugees every year. But we can [continue to] serve clients. Depending on the program, we serve them maybe from one year anywhere even to three or five years. So the agency as a whole is serving I believe over two thousand clients every year, but every year we’re welcoming about five hundred or over five hundred new refugees to the city of Chicago.


DN: And you’re servicing their needs -their multiple complex needs – not just stressing one need, but all their needs.

AH: Exactly, right. It’s really a holistic, wraparound model.

DN: You said RefugeeOne started about 1982 and that’s roughly thirty-five years ago, more or less. And I think over the years there has been a change in the population of refugees countries that they come from. How long have you been working with RefugeeOne?

AH: I have been here since 2006. So about eight years now.

DN: In those eight years you’ve really seen some dramatic changes in populations. Could you discuss that a little bit please?

AH: Sure, even just in the eight years I’ve been here at RefugeeOne I’ve seen lots of different, diverse ethnic groups and people of diverse nationalities arrive here through our agency. The president of the United States in collaboration with the United Nations and the United States State Department, they determine each year which countries the United States will be accepting refugees from and, of course, trying to respond to the shifting needs around the world. Now it’s early 2015 and we all know there has been a crisis raging in Syria for example for a few years now. So we’re starting to welcome Syrian refugees. When I started in 2006 we were working a lot with Liberians and from other West African and East African countries. Then in 2007 we had a huge group from Burundi come. And then in 2008, refugees from Burma started coming. Around that same time, refugees from Iraq started coming. So it really just depends on both of course what’s happening around the world in terms of refugee crises and conflicts, and then it also depends on the international political scene as well. It will kind of come in waves where for a few years we will be serving refugees from a few certain countries and then it will change and we will be welcoming people from entirely different parts of the world.

DN: Do you think Edgewater is a point of entry – takes prominence over other areas and cities as far as refugee relocation?


AH: Yes, Edgewater is definitely one of the major primary locations in the city for newly arriving refugees. There are five refugee resettlement agencies in Chicago and most of us operate in and around in this area. And all of us find housing for our new refugees in the Edgewater and surrounding communities. I believe that part of the diversity of Edgewater is due to the fact that we’ve been bringing refugees here since 1982.  I don’t know what happened first (laughing). I believe it was already quite diverse, which I’m sure is what motivated us to resettle refugees in this neighborhood. We find that it is incredible important for newly arriving refugees to be housed in a neighborhood where they will be able to have neighbors from the same background as them; to be able to find groceries in the grocery stores that are foods that they recognize. It just helps them – really helps with their adjustment and their comfort level if they’re in a community that’s welcoming and diverse and has at least some representation from their home.

DN: Do you think that it is important to reestablish a sense of home in this new land? And could you talk about that a little bit?

AH: Sure, yeah. I think one of the, benefits that we as citizens of Chicago gain from refugee resettlement is the diversity that we get to experience by living here. Because really when refugees move here, of course they work on acclimating and getting used to American culture but they carry their home culture with them. They carry it with them always. And so one of our goals is to really help them celebrate that; to continue to celebrate their own culture even here in a new country; help us learn about it, help us celebrate it. So it’s definitely an important part of our work to help them keep their traditions alive. I mean you look around Edgewater for example in the Argyle neighborhood, which is full of Vietnamese restaurants and shops and that is largely because in the eighties we were bringing Vietnamese refugees in this area. So they’ve given back to us, to our community because you know, this is really a vibrant cultural community right here.

DN: What do you think is the most important thing a refugee needs when they first come to this country?

AH: The most important thing a refugee needs when they first come to this county is just about kind of having the right attitude really. Our clients are survivors; they have been through a tremendous amount. So we find that the resilience in their spirit is really what helps them survive and eventually thrive in their new home. I don’t think they have to come here necessarily with any tangible items. Of course coming here with English skills is a huge help, but even for those who come here speaking no English and having no knowledge of American culture or customs, just the tenacity and grit and determination that they have in their spirit I think is what really is the defining factor in their success here.

DN: What do you think is the most important thing RefugeeOne can offer them when they first come here?


AH: When refugees first come we offer a lot of tangible supports and services – housing, food, clothing, getting the kids in school, making sure those basic needs are being met. Of course that’s incredibly important, but I think perhaps even more important than that is just giving them the comfort and security of knowing that we’re here to help them and that we’re going to see them through their difficult times. I think a lot of our clients just really come to trust and rely on us, and know that we are working in their best interest -and just that alone just helps ease the stress of making this really big and challenging transition.

DN: You talked about Edgewater being very diverse and offering them grocery stores where they can get things; food stuffs that will make them feel at home, and having a community of others that are from their country and so on…What about the Edgewater community at large? What role do you see the Edgewater community at large playing to help the refugees settle?

AH: Mmmhmm, I think Edgewater as a whole…. Again, because it has so much diversity and has been diverse so long, the people who live here are really comfortable with diversity and therefore more welcoming to new people. So just that friendly attitude that they experience walking around their neighborhood I think makes a tremendous difference. Of course working with youth I’m always thinking about the needs of children and the schools have incredible diversity. The teachers at the schools are extremely knowledgeable about working with children from different backgrounds, working with children who are English language learners. So I think they get a lot of good support in that part of the community. And I guess just kinda the open-minded attitude of the residents in Edgewater allows them to feel comfortable and safe.

DN: Does RefugeeOne work with any other agencies or organizations or churches in Edgewater in a collaborative way?

AH: Um, yes. RefugeeOne works with a lot of different agencies in and around the whole city of Chicago. In Edgewater we work with the Pan-African Association for example. They have been close, almost like a sister agency to us since their inception. And they provide ongoing services to the African diaspora here in Chicago after their initial resettlement period. Two brand new agencies that are just getting started now in Edgewater are the Chicago Burmese Community Center and the Bhutanese Community Association of Illinois – these are two new mutual aid agencies that will also be providing the same types of support, ongoing support for members of the Burmese and Bhutanese ethnic communities that have settled here in Chicago. We’ve partnered with Care For Real for years and years which is a great community resource for food and clothing and other needs like that. And of course, the schools. We’ve partnered a lot with the schools in the community. We’ve partnered with O.N.E, which is the Organization of the North East, a collaborative agency that is sort of an umbrella agency for service providers in this part of Chicago. I’m sure there are many more.

DN: That is quite a lot. You mentioned that Edgewater residents seem to have a welcoming attitude towards refugees. What else can an Edgewater resident do to make refugees feel welcome, or to give them support besides having the welcoming attitude?


AH: Sure. There is a lot that members of the community can do to welcome and support refugees. It can be as simple as donating food or clothing or home goods either to our agency or to Care For Real which we partner with, or to the Pan-African Association. But we also really rely on the support of community members for volunteer roles. For the youth program we use volunteer tutors who go to our clients homes and work with the children in the home once a week and help them learn English and help them with their homework.

We also have a mentorship program, we try to match, um, all of our clients who, who requested or were interested with a volunteer mentor. These mentors really play an incredibly important role in the lives of our clients in their first few months. The mentor might work with the parents around learning English. They might also help them learn how to navigate the CTA system; they might take them to a grocery store and kind of help them figure out how to find the produce and products that they are familiar with; take them around the city and help them get to know their new home; read their mail and help them sort through their mail and figure out what’s important and what’s junk mail. All of these little things – we really rely on our mentors who are our volunteers from the community to help with.

We also rely on volunteers to sponsor refugee families. Sponsorship is a bigger commitment. For those who are interested it involves fundraising, both financial assistance and also home goods so that when a newly arriving refugee family shows up they have a furnished home with the rent covered for the first month. And the co-sponsors are responsible for helping to raise those funds and those donations and also serve as mentors for this new family through their first few months in the United States to help them adjust.

DN: One of the difficulties I think of adjusting is the difference from the home culture to the culture of the United States and the generation difference between the elders who don’t have English and the children who are learning English. Can you speak to that since you’re involved in the youth program?


AH: Yes, definitely. I think an unexpected challenge that a lot of our families face when they first get here is the changing family dynamics that result because the children learn English typically much faster than the adults and because the children are so immersed in the culture everyday – they’re going to school ya know they’re interacting with their peers. Just being children - their brains are just sponges and they’re just absorbing all this new information with such ease and adults don’t have that same ease. Children really find themselves very quickly getting more familiar and comfortable with the new culture and new environment. So then the children sometimes become both linguistic translators for their parents and also cultural interpreters for their parents. That can create some shifting family roles and shifting family dynamics; that can be challenging for a family. And so part of our job here in the youth program is to help them navigate those changes; help them be prepared for the changes that might sort of inevitably happen; but also work with parents around ways to still maintain a healthy overall family system and healthy relationships within the family.

DN: What about the elderly refugees when they come? I don’t know if you’ve worked with the elderly Russian refugees, or people who are older and might have had high status in their home country before coming here and making that adjustment. So, would you say that is an issue RefugeeOne addresses?

AH: Yeah, so the elderly population definitely has their own unique set of needs. We do have a seniors program, which I may have forgotten to mention earlier. Our seniors program is primarily focused on making sure seniors are connected to benefits that they’re entitled to, and then also planning special activities and outings for them because we find often times with the elderly community, they might become more isolated. They’re not necessarily as mobile or able to get around. They might not speak the language, so we want to make sure they’re still getting out of the house having social opportunities and also pairing them with a mentor who can come to them and work with them. We also offer mental health services to help with those who are really struggling with adjustment issues. Our holistic approach is where we’re really looking at each family and family unit as a whole and figuring out what their needs are and working to get those needs met. If it means we have an elderly client who has a set of needs we’ve never encountered before then we have to figure out a way to address that.

DN: One of the programs you mentioned was a program specific for women. I think I’ve read that seventy percent of the refugees are women coming by themselves…I don’t know if it was seventy. But while single women do come with children, some come with husbands, and so on. I also know from interviewing other refugees that domestic violence can be an issue with women too, in making the cultural adjustment with their families. Can you speak on those issues?


AH: Sure. Yes, we definitely see a large number of single women coming with children. Of course their struggles are going to be…. Well, they’re going to have struggles to support their children, to be able to work while also caring for their children…the struggles that any single parent would have, and then of course amplified by the fact that they are in a new culture, learning a new language, learning a new system. So, our women’s empowerment program is a really, I think, vital source of support for them. The program provides the mentorship that I’ve been talking about already. A mentor will be paired with a woman and meet with her every week just to make sure whatever help she might need. The mentor is there to kind of help her.

We also do lots of workshops in the women’s program around women’s health; around issues of domestic violence; what laws we have in America to protect women; and the rights that they have here. We also offer workshops around parenting because parenting in America might look different than parenting in other cultures and we want to make sure they have the knowledge they need to be successful here. Then we also have a small women’s center that we just opened. At the women’s center we’ll offer some of these workshops. We also have group therapy, parenting classes, and also a sewing class and sewing workshop. So we offer sewing classes and just a space for women to come to be together. The sewing classes are at this point almost more of a social environment, not necessarily for developing professional seamstress skills necessarily. It’s to just provide again a safe comfortable space for women to come together; to get out of their homes; be social; interact with one another; learn from one another; and work together on projects. Then of course we are connected with other agencies that might provide more specific services for women like women’s health or domestic violence issues. If there is a more intense need we can help them access those services.


DN: You mentioned that you’ve been with RefugeeOne since 2006 – and we’ve talked about the different changing populations in Edgewater since then. Do you see the needs of refugees changing because of those populations, or do you see the needs of refugees being pretty much the same?

AH: The needs of refugees overall of course remain the same in the sense that they need their basic needs to be met. They need housing; they need jobs; they need food; their children need to go to school. I think one of the things that is most dynamic about working with refugees is the fact that the populations do change over time and when a new population of refugees is coming from a completely different part of the world, it’s our responsibility to learn about the specific cultural beliefs or traditions that our new clients are going to bring. So our approach to each client and each group that we’re serving really does change over time. Honestly I think it’s good for us; it keeps us on our toes; it keeps us learning and engaged and knowing what’s going on around the world because we have a responsibility to try to understand as much as we can where they are coming from. And so our approach might completely change.


We’re still getting them those basic services, but maybe the way we deliver those services or the way we even speak with them or interact with them can look very different. Even something as simple as… if I’m doing a workshop with parents, one group might feel more comfortable coming here to the office, sitting in one of our classrooms in a more sort of like formal education sort of setting. And then another population might feel a little bit intimidated by that setting and so then I’m going to do that same workshop and same information, but I’m going to go into one of their homes. We’re going to invite other people from their same community to their home so that the environment is more comfortable for them and suited for their learning. So that’s just a small example of how we might adapt our services or service delivery based on the cultures we’re working with.

DN: So what I think I’m hearing you say is that RefugeeOne wants to make the new refugee comfortable, at home and in a safe environment as much as possible and then start empowering them with the various services that are here.

AH: Yes, exactly. Our job again is to help our clients stand on their own two feet and feel the satisfaction of being independent and able to care fore themselves and able to care for their children. And so we want to ease that transition for them, support them through the transition, but ultimately empower them to go out and live their lives with the freedoms that do come from living in the United States. And also one of the beautiful things that we see is that once our clients do become more independent and self-reliant, some of them want to come back and contribute to newly arriving refugees and volunteer in some capacity or serve as sort of mentors for newly arriving families, which again kind of helps us to build those communities.

DN: Amy, this is really an open-ended interview and a chance for RefugeeOne, or for you representing Refugee One, to say or contribute anything that you might like. I’ve asked a lot of questions. Maybe there is something else you might like to say? So this is an opportunity to do that if you would like.


AH: I guess the only final thing I might offer, from a personal perspective: I moved to Chicago from New York and when I moved here and started working with RefugeeOne and working in Edgewater and with the refugee communities here, I found for myself a sense of community that I had never had before – and it’s one of the reasons that I’ve stayed in Chicago and plan to stay in Chicago. I feel so strongly connected to the community here and feel supported by the community, welcomed, and just enriched by the diversity that we have here. It’s been a tremendous blessing in my own life, I feel grateful to the refugees we work with because I really feel like it has enriched my own life. So, I can only hope that we can continue to do the work that we do here in Edgewater with refugees and that we continue to be supported by the community; the greater community; that we continue to be supported by our politicians and our funders, so that Edgewater can continue to benefit from the diversity and rich experiences that refugees contribute.

DN: I can’t think of any better way to end an interview than what you’ve just contributed. Thank you so much and thank you for your time.