Refugee Resettlement Groups See Surge In Volunteers

RefugeeOne relies on volunteers to work with refugee families and to donate supplies, such as these backpacks distributed at a back-to-school fair for refugee youth in 2014. Since the November election, the group has seen a surge in interest from would-be volunteers. Odette Yousef / WBEZ
RefugeeOne relies on volunteers to work with refugee families and to donate supplies, such as these backpacks distributed at a back-to-school fair for refugee youth in 2014. Since the November election, the group has seen a surge in interest from would-be volunteers. Odette Yousef / WBEZ

Refugee Resettlement Groups See Surge In Volunteers

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Since the election, immigrants and refugees have been anxious about their safety and their future in the United States.

But amidst this uncertainty, there has been a silver lining for local groups that support those communities. Many of those groups say they’re seeing an unprecedented outpouring of offers to volunteer and help.

“Oh my gosh,” said Sally Berkhia, community engagement manager at Heartland Alliance. “So after the election — the day after — I cannot tell you how many emails I had from amazing, amazing people wanting to volunteer, wanting to donate their time to many of our causes, especially our refugee program.” 

Berkhia noted she typically fields two to three requests to volunteer per week, but since the election that increased to 10 to 20 requests per week — and has sustained well beyond election day.

“It has gotten to a point where we have now closed the online application (for volunteers) because we have a waitlist of people who have already signed up and been trained and they are waiting to be assigned to refugee families,” said Melineh Kano, executive director of RefugeeOne, a refugee resettlement agency in Chicago. 

Kano said the only other time she had to disable the online volunteer form was immediately after the photo of Alan Kurdi, a young Syrian refugee child whose body washed up on the shores of Turkey, was widely circulated.

“Just to put it in perspective, last year we had about 400 volunteers, and that’s a little increase from the year before when we had 300,” Kano said. “And this year we have 1,000 volunteers.”

Meleah Geertsma, an environmental lawyer in Chicago, said that after she took a couple of days to process her own shock at Donald Trump’s presidential victory, she jumped into action.

“I’m not really good at sitting back and being upset about things and not doing anything,” she said. “I felt like I wanted to find something that I could do.”

Geertsma reached out to the National Immigrant Justice Center, a Chicago-based legal aid and advocacy organization for immigrants, to ask if she could assist with pro bono work. 

“Direct involvement really has not been my personal thing so far, but I also felt like we’re all immigrants and we should be giving refuge to people who are facing things like political tyranny in other countries,” Geertsma said. “My family came from all over the world to the U.S., and I felt like I hadn’t done enough. I felt like it was on me to get a little more active.”

For many of these groups, the surge of interest is timely. Kano said RefugeeOne is slated this year to resettle 750 refugees in the Chicago area, an increase of 300 over last year. 

The group’s volunteers help with a variety of refugee needs, including helping adults secure employment, driving them to medical appointments, showing them how to navigate the CTA system and grocery stores, tutoring English and assisting with youth after-school programs, 

The need for volunteers has also increased directly as a result of heightened immigrant anxiety in the wake of the election. 

“We’re seeing this huge surge of people that are coming in, interested in becoming citizens because, again, there’s a lot of uncertainty in terms of what’s going to happen post January 20th,” said Celina Villanueva, civic engagement manager at the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.

She said the group has been able to handle that staffing more volunteers in its weekly citizenship workshops.

Villanueva said the increased demand for services before and after the election has been particularly challenging because of severe cutbacks at her organization. ICIRR was among the organizations in Illinois that were impacted by Gov. Bruce Rauner’s Good Friday budget cuts, a total of $26 million state dollars taken away from social service agencies. 

Villanueva said her organization was forced to slash half of its staff. The influx of free labor has helped the organization to rebuild somewhat, and has allowed ICIRR also to bolster its member organizations by matching volunteers with other groups.

“If you speak Korean, we have several Korean organizations that need help. Or if you speak Spanish, we have numerous amount of organizations that work with Spanish language speaking communities,” said Villanueva. “So again, it depends on the skills set, but we do have opportunities available for people that are interested in volunteering and getting into the work.”

Organizations are also asking the public to consider other ways to help, if would-be volunteers are deterred by the possibility of being added to a long wait list. 

“We always welcome a different kind of in-kind donations,” said Kano of RefugeeOne. “Right now, because we have resettled so many refugees, we are really in need of CTA cards. So that would be something great if people could just buy single-ride cards and donate them to RefugeeONE.” 

Kano said RefugeeOne’s website regularly updates with information about what type of donations they are taking — and which ones they are not accepting — for certain months.

Berkhia said Heartland Alliance plans to capitalize on the goodwill by regularly putting out appeals on social media for help with discrete needs, such as helping refugees prepare resumes or do mock job interviews, tutoring children for ACT exams, and preparing welcome packs for refugee families. She said the requests will be broadcasted through Heartland’s Twitter account and Facebook pages.

Villanueva said the surge of interest has encouraged her staff at a time when they may feel particularly discouraged, given the decidedly anti-immigrant and anti-refugee rhetoric that has crept into the country’s political discourse. 

“It’s really incredible to see the new faces and the new leaders that are stepping up and coming into the fold and the movement,” Villanueva said.

For Geertsma, there has been joy in finding ways to help these groups. She said she’s planning a holiday party “potluck,” where instead of food, guests will bring items needed for refugee welcome kits. They’ll enlist their friends and friends’ kids to assemble the kits over the weekend and drop them off before the holidays begin. 

“I hope people everywhere are thinking about actions that they can take, and not just things that they can post, or money that they can give,” said Geertsma, “but actually getting up off the couch, getting out into the world, and using whatever skills you have, because we all have something that we can give.”

Odette Yousef is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her at @oyousef.