Derecho recovery reshaped the work of human service agencies

(Originally Published in the Gazette on August 25th, 2021)

Author: Paula Land, Executive Director of CMC

Last August’s derecho brought an influx of donations and volunteer support to local human service agencies, many that look different today after expanding services and resources to support ongoing disaster recovery efforts. While the immediate disaster is in the past, major community needs persist. And as the upcoming school year approaches, new needs will arise and local agencies that are taking action still need your support.

 

At the Catherine McAuley Center (CMC), for one, there was a clear need for emergency housing after the derecho, which led us to not only open a temporary shelter for refugees and immigrants, but to also provide ongoing disaster case management and other services to shelter residents. As additional needs were discovered, CMC added more services.

 

Another critical need resurfaced in the midst of the derecho and pandemic — the expectation for refugee and immigrant youth to return to online learning in the new school year. These students were still learning English, had limited access to WiFi or computers, or little experience navigating online assignments and instruction. Their parents, also English language learners, were not able to guide them through their lessons.

 

Days before the school year started, CMC case managers began checking in with families and learned that most didn’t have the resources available to attend school online. Families were welcomed to join the other students at the temporary shelter for the start of classes, but with limited space and bandwidth, a separate location for online learning was crucial. 

That’s when CMC transitioned the one undamaged wing of the Catherine McAuley Center’s new building into a temporary school for students to attend classes online. Word spread quickly, and before long 45 ELL students from local elementary, middle, and high schools were logging on for their classes from CMC. The temporary school offered classrooms, computer labs, interpreters, culturally familiar food, and direct support from CMC staff and local teachers from September through November. 

 

But even after Cedar Rapids schools resumed in-person classes, the ELL students who had been receiving individual support at CMC lacked the after-school support that directly addressed the needs of English language learners. Because CMC case managers built strong connections with students in the temporary school, and with expertise in meeting the needs of refugees and immigrants, CMC expanded on an earlier summer program and launched a long-term after-school program, LIFE (Learning Is For Everyone). 

 

Through the LIFE program, students meet weekly at CMC to receive support with homework and class assignments, reinforcing what they’re learning in school. Balanced with a strong desire to learn English, students come to CMC to build relationships and make deeper connections in the community. In this upcoming school year, LIFE will continue to grow, meeting twice weekly for increased support, field trips, and self-discovery projects. Another big component of this school year will be engaging parents in the program, the schools, and their children’s learning. 

Disaster recovery demanded the development of new resources, and the community stepped up with financial contributions, supply donations, and volunteerism – all which are essential for growth. The outpouring of generosity seen after the derecho allowed CMC to quickly expand services to meet growing needs. But just as support for online learning in the fall made way for the LIFE after-school program, these new, high demand services require ongoing support.

 

There are countless other examples of service growth throughout the community. Please continue investing in human service organizations that have adapted to meet ongoing needs as you did immediately after the derecho.

A Statement on Afghan Refugees and Special Immigrant Visa Holders

Written by CMC’s Director of Refugee & Immigrant Services, Sara Zejnic

As the resettlement agency serving Eastern Iowa, the Catherine McAuley Center (CMC) stands ready to welcome and support Afghan refugees and Special Immigrant Visa-holders (SIVs) as they settle into our local communities and work to establish the safety and stability that every person deserves.

To date, the majority of refugees that CMC has resettled have come from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Burma, but CMC will support any refugee or SIV referred to our office by our partners at the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI).

Our local communities are strengthened when we are welcoming and supportive of people from different backgrounds. CMC is fully committed to assisting any and all Afghans when they arrive, and we are waiting for the opportunity to do so.

Refugee vs. Special Immigrant Visa holder (SIV)
It is important to remember that there are several different immigration statuses at play, and that the resettlement process has evolved over the 40 years of the U.S.’s formal Refugee Resettlement program, with a goal of helping refugees become self-sufficient, and includes an extensive vetting process that is trusted to protect Americans.

  • Special Immigrant Visa holders (SIVs) are people who have contracted with the U.S. government, often as interpreters or security forces. They have already undergone extensive security screenings prior to working with the U.S. military. These are the cases that are currently being expedited and processed at U.S. military bases.
  • Refugees are people who fled their home country because of a well-founded fear of persecution for their race, sex, ethnic group, or membership in another social group. Refugees undergo a great deal of screening overseas prior to entering the United States including interviews, background checks, and health screenings. This process usually lasts at least 18 months.

We know that the refugee processing professionals are working around the clock to be certain that the security protocols are followed as they quickly process cases.

More information:
If you have questions, need support, or resources for yourself or others, please visit USCRI’s webpage for the most up-to-date resources to support those seeking safety and stability.

How to help:
If you want to help CMC and our resettlement partners across the country, there are many ways you can get involved:

Learn More:
Check out the latest news coverage at the links below for more information on CMC’s commitment to supporting Afghans.

Even red states like Iowa are lining up to accept Afghan refugees – August 20, 2021

Cedar Rapids nonprofit ready to accept Afghan refugees amid chaos – August 17, 2021

Iowa exploring accepting more refugees from Afghanistan – August 17, 2021

Tejas Gururaja’s Journey with Take Action United

When COVID hit and school closed in March 2020, it felt like my entire world stopped. All my extracurricular activities, show choir, music, sports were all gone. While I had to take classes online and forgo extracurricular activities and outings with my friends, I was reminded of the people who have lost jobs, unable to buy food, pay rent, and not able to afford medicine.

As I was browsing the web one day, I came across the Catherine McCauly Center’s message about World Refugee Day in June. I have been volunteering at CMC before with shelving and helping with other things, but I had the idea of engaging the community and collecting canned goods/non-perishable items for the CMC food pantry. I started an organization called Take Action United through which I engaged the community to collect food items to donate to the CMC.

The first year, we had a goal of 1000 items which we more than exceeded. In 2021, we set a challenging goal of collecting 2021 items by June 20th. This required me to engage more people and organizations in the community. I encouraged my friends to collect items in their neighborhoods and also set up a collection booth at my high school. We exceeded our goal and were able to donate 2021+ food items and cash donations to the CMC. I want to continue to grow this food drive by holding fundraising events and engaging more of the community.

World Food Day 2021 is coming up on Saturday, October 16 and we are hosting a mini food drive. Our goal is to collect 1,000 non-perishable food items. All donation options are listed in the flyer.
We are SO excited to keep giving to Catherine McAuley Center. They have a tremendous impact on the community and so many rely on them. Please consider donating!
– Tejas Gururaja

Volunteer Spotlight: Marimer

A typical day at Catherine McAuley Center for Marimer, who is our RefugeeRISE Education Coordinator – is anything but typical.  “My desk is located at the front of the building,” Marimer says, “so I try to give a warm welcome to people and help them. When I am not doing this, I am working on projects like visual media, drawings, posters, giving ideas for handouts, researching and tracking statistics and more.”  Marimer has a creative side that she is able to express by working on big art projects at the Center, such as a mural for the community room and creating graphics for curriculum materials.  She also gives art therapy classes every two weeks and attends meetings with clients who are in need of a translator (she is a native Spanish speaker).

As an immigrant to the United States and native of Mexico City, Marimer discovered the Catherine McAuley Center when she was looking for help in preparing to take the American citizenship test.  She studied citizenship for ten months and passed the test with flying colors!  Soon after that, CMC asked Marimer if she would like to become a tutor.  When the pandemic started Marimer was forced to stop teaching.  She saw the panic and need for masks among communities and so Marimer decided to make them (over 800 masks!!) and give them away to the local community here as well as other states such as New York, Florida, Massachusetts, Virginia, and California.  Some of her masks made it to her native Mexico as well!

As a result of her active role at the Center, Marimer was asked to join CMC as part of AmeriCorps and quickly said yes.  She also helped promote the COVID-19 vaccine here in our community by making videos in Spanish to encourage the Hispanic community to get vaccinated.  “I always try to find a way to help my community,” says Marimer.  She says she has gained a lot from the experience at CMC but most importantly – self-confidence in herself and her communication skills.  Since English is not her first language, it has helped her build language and other skills when helping people find the resources they need.  Art is another avenue Marimer uses to contribute her time and talent.

Marimer has applied for a second term with AmeriCorps because she still feels she has much left to do.  She wants to make a greater impact on the people she helps and keep learning.    Marimer is gratified by the outcome of her efforts so far and excited to be able to continue to make a contribution.  All the things Marimer is a part of have a common theme:  helping others.

Volunteer Spotlight: Umoja Wamama Africa

For Regina, helping other women and building community is nothing new.  The native of Congo has been helping women in varying capacities since 2003.  It was at that time, while living in a refugee camp, that she and a few other women from Congo decided to take the initiative to improve women’s livelihoods by teaching and enhancing life skills that improve their income generating ability, thereby fighting against poverty and hunger.  They were successful in helping women begin saving cash and eventually, due to the positive response, they procured funding from the Catholic church.

With that successful experience, Regina arrived July of 2017, in Cedar Rapids, with her husband and three children.  CMC resettled her family, and Regina was in communication with her case manager regularly.  About eight months after resettlement, Regina noticed there were some challenges to maintaining the same cultural values as they had in their native land.  She noticed the language and transportation barriers, for instance, and decided she wanted to bring women together so they could help one another.  “When we know each other, we can help each other,” says Regina.  As a way of helping out and forming community, a few of the women met and decided to form an initiative called “Umoja Wamama Africa”, which would enhance the refugee experience by offering:

  • Assistance to new arrivals
  • Promoting peace and unity within family and community
  • Provide family and youth counseling
  • Education

As a result of this initiative, Regina has helped welcome 10 families to the Cedar Rapids area.  Her group’s activities include meeting families at the airport, preparing and sharing a welcome meal with new arrivals at their respective homes, providing guidance on how and where to buy or get basic needs/services, and helping with interpretation.

With this structure in place, it was only natural that when the derecho happened last August, Regina would offer to cook meals. She and a group of Congolese women fed 80 adults and children for 6 days immediately following the disaster, and continued providing lunches to 35 refugee youth attending remote classes at the Catherine McAuley Center.  The group’s hard work helped to provide culturally appropriate meals to refugee youth so they could learn on-site at CMC, receiving support from staff.

Regina is proud of what the group has accomplished, but continues to set her sights on expanding their services, both locally and abroad.  CMC is proud to partner with Umoja Wamama Africa to provide culturally appropriate welcomes for new arrivals.  Thanks to these women for all they do for the local refugee community!

Volunteer Spotlight: Paula and Elena

For Paula and Elena, volunteering at CMC is something they enjoy doing together.  The mother and daughter team have been helping out in the food pantry for about 6 months.

Prior to that, Paula had been a volunteer in the early 2000’s, for about a year.  When her and her husband moved to West Liberty, she stopped volunteering.  Needless to say, a lot has changed since then!  “CMC has always been a great place of support for many in our community who are trying to improve themselves, make a good life, and find support with each other. Coming back many years later, this has not changed and only been enhanced! The biggest most recent change is, of course, to the new building. When my daughter and I started coming to help with the food pantry last fall things were in transition! It is so wonderful to see everything start to take shape.  All of the cooler and freezer space available for the pantry is very helpful! Families are able to access more fresh, nutritious foods they can enjoy,” says Paula.

In the interim years between volunteering, Paula and her family moved to Guatemala – and she experienced the other side of the coin – from what refugees experience here.  “Some of my time in Guatemala was spent with people who had been refugees or internally displaced due to the 36-year civil war in that country. I want my community to be a welcoming place and to give support to those who need it, especially when people have lived through trauma and violence whether that has happened right here in Iowa or anywhere else. As a foreigner and immigrant in these countries I was welcomed by most people in most places I traveled or lived. If I stumbled with a terrible accent in Spanish or when I said or did things in a strange way because I came from another culture and way of life, people were patient and kind with me; they were forgiving and helped me learn. I hope that through CMC, I can help create a place in the community where people are given the opportunity to learn and grow and experience kindness and patience,” says Paula.  Elena says she enjoyed bringing food to the people in need.

For both mother and daughter, the highlight to volunteering was seeing the smiles of delight on children’s and parent’s faces when they delivered food boxes.  Paula sums it up when she says she “wanted to help reduce food insecurity in the community.”  Paula and Elena have enjoyed the opportunity to help CMC further its outreach in the community.

A Statement on Biden’s Memorandum to Increase the U.S. Refugee Admissions Cap

On May 3, 2021, President Biden signed a memorandum to increase the number of refugees allowed into the United States for this fiscal year (Oct 2020-Sept 2021) from a historic low of 15,000 to 62,500. CMC welcomes this development and applauds President Biden for fulfilling this promise. 

The President has the legal authority to change how many refugees are allowed into the U.S. through what is referred to as the Presidential Determination. Due in large part to the advocacy of the late Iowa Governor Robert Ray, the U.S. Refugee Admissions program was created in 1980 to formalize the refugee resettlement process in the United States. From 1980 to 2016, the average number of refugees entering the U.S. per year was 80,981. Under President Trump, the average number of refugees entering the U.S. per year was 29,512. Though still historically low, an increased admissions cap of 62,500 is an important step to serving the 26 million refugees in the world, among whom less than 1% are ever resettled into a country like the U.S.

Due to the decimation of the U.S.’s Refugee Resettlement infrastructure, both domestically and abroad, under President Trump, the number of refugees entering the US this year is not likely to reach 62,500. That said, President Biden’s action sends an important signal to the rest of the world: that the United States will once again lead by example in welcoming refugees. 

Refugees had to flee their country because of who they are or what they believe. No one wants to be a refugee. Given our history and status in the world, we have a moral duty to continue to welcome refugees to the United States. Refugees enrich our country and communities. Here in Iowa, refugees help address the increasing workforce shortage. Because of Iowa’s declining birthrate and aging population, we need more Iowans in order to stay prosperous and competitive with other states and the rest of the world. The refugees we welcome to our state become Iowans and can lead our state to a better future.

The Catherine McAuley Center believes our future depends on inclusive communities that welcome, respect, and support a diversity of individuals and ideas. Refugees come from other cultures and speak other languages. By welcoming refugees we show compassion for all people no matter who they are or their faith. As the number of refugee arrivals returns to what the US has historically received, CMC will continue to welcome these new Iowans.

Expanding Career Opportunities in Healthcare for Refugees and Immigrants

Elouth was well on his way to his dream of working in healthcare when his career path was disrupted.

“In Africa I was a nurse. I worked in a training clinic because it was my first year to start working, but then we came here.” Elouth and his family were refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, forced to leave their home in search of safety. In 2019, they were resettled in their new home in Eastern Iowa through the Catherine McAuley Center (CMC).

Though Elouth and his wife found employment in Iowa – Elouth in manufacturing and his wife in operating an in-home daycare through CMC’s Refugee Child Care Business Development Program—his nursing training and certification did not transfer to the U.S.

Knowing his goals of returning to a role in healthcare, case managers at CMC encouraged Elouth to first focus on learning English. After a year of studying English at CMC and then at Kirkwood, he’s now working toward certification as a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) through a new program at CMC.

“Outside of class I’m working from 3pm to 12am, and I go to class at 9am. It’s a hard job so sometimes I’m very tired.” With Elouth’s determination comes a demanding schedule, but he has become a leader in his Basic Healthcare Communications Class, offered through a partnership between Kirkwood Community College and CMC. Claire Tupper, who teaches the class, says. “His English is very strong and he has past healthcare experience, so he can help other students understand,” though Elouth would say he learns from other students, too. “It’s great because we’re all learning. They can teach me something and I can teach them something.”

Beyond helping students reach their career goals, the CNA program is meeting a critical need for healthcare workers in Iowa, and adding to the pool of professionals who have an understanding of the unique health needs of the refugee and immigrant communities. “[The class] is helping me a lot because it helps me learn many medical terms in English. It helps me communicate to patients and learn how to treat my patients,” says Elouth.

Elouth and his 10 other classmates will continue attending Basic Healthcare Communications through June, and can then enroll in Kirkwood’s KPACE program. Many students in the class are also studying class material one-on-one with volunteer tutors at CMC and expect to be certified in November, at which time they will enroll in an apprenticeship program and finally be employed as CNAs.

You can give to support this new generation of healthcare workers and other clients who are pursuing their goals at CMC. The first $4,000 in gifts received between now and June 30 will be matched by Kepros Physical Therapy & Performance!

Learn About the COVID-19 Vaccines

Over the last few weeks, Catherine McAuley Center has been creating flyers and videos about the COVID-19 vaccine for the purpose of encouraging everyone to get vaccinated. We have been gathering important information about the vaccines, as well as meeting with leaders in the community from different backgrounds who speak a variety of languages to hear about why they have chosen to get vaccinated.

Currently, we have created flyers in 7 different languages: Swahili, Kinyarwanda, Kirundi, Spanish, English, French, and Arabic. We have also filmed 5 videos in the following languages: Swahili, Kinyarwanda, Spanish, English, and Arabic. 

To find our COVID-19 Vaccine flyers, please visit our website’s home page (cmc-cr.org), or follow this link to our Google Drive folder.

If you would like to watch our COVID-19 Vaccine Q&A videos with community leaders, you can click this link, which will take you to our YouTube playlist.

The Impact of SF 252

What is SF 252?

The Iowa Legislature has recently passed a bill known as SF 252. Governor Kim Reynolds also recently signed the bill, officially passing the bill into law. This bill was created in response to the nondiscrimination ordinances for individuals who receive housing vouchers in Marion, Iowa City, and Des Moines. Currently, these three cities have made it illegal for landlords to deny an individual housing based solely on their use of Section 8 housing vouchers. The Section 8 Housing Voucher Program is a Housing Assistance Program that assists low-income individuals and families in affording safe and sanitary housing.

With the passage of SF 252, cities and counties will no longer be able to protect voucher recipients from being denied housing. Essentially, landlords will be able to discriminate against low-income individuals who receive federal housing assistance and cities/counties will have no control over whether or not landlords accept Section 8 vouchers.

Read the bill here.

Impact on our Communities

SF 252 will leave a negative impact on many communities in a multitude of ways. 

Firstly, this bill is a blatant violation of civil rights, allowing the use of housing vouchers to determine an individual’s right to safe and affordable housing. People experiencing poverty are already facing numerous barriers to housing access, from lack of affordable housing options to limited availability of housing assistance. The addition of this bill will only further limit low-income people and families from attaining and maintaining housing.

Among all people experiencing poverty, women and Black people will be disproportionately affected by discrimination under SF 252. Women-led households account for over 80% of Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher recipients. Additionally, over 40% of Section 8 households are Black-led. When considering the discrimination and bias that these groups already face, this bill makes it easier to legally discriminate against people of any protected class by using section 8 vouchers as an excuse for denial of housing.

Section 8 recipients are reliable renters

Many landlords are hesitant to accept Section 8 tenants in their facilities due to the stereotypes of people experiencing poverty. In reality, Section 8 tenants are simply people who need financial assistance to have a safe roof over their heads, and vouchers can provide a reliable source of income for landlords who accept them. When asked about the benefits of having Section 8 tenants, Landlords Myrna and Jim Loehrlein stated “We have rented to Section 8 recipients a number of times. In fact, we have recommended it to tenants who were struggling. With Section 8 renters, we know that rent payments will be reliably supported. This is a program that serves both low-income renters and their landlords. So many people are on waiting lists for this benefit that we hope some way can be found to increase funding to support more program participation.”

CMC believes that all individuals, regardless of gender identity, race, socioeconomic status, ability, ethnicity, age, religion, sexual orientation, language, educational background, or family make-up deserve safe and affordable housing. SF 252 jeopardizes the rights of individuals receiving Section 8 vouchers, and CMC will continue to advocate for policy and culture that bolsters an individual’s rights to fair and safe housing, rather than taking them away.