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.

Volunteer spotlight: YOU

Here at the Catherine McAuley Center, we’ve seen an outpouring of volunteer support over the past year, and in many creative ways from tutoring online, holding supply drives, assembling and delivering food boxes, to cleaning the new building and helping the Center move into its new home.  When the derecho hit in August, “The work after the storm really inspired people to step up,” says Katie Splean, Volunteer & Outreach Manager at CMC. Volunteers helped flip our old building and turned it into a shelter for displaced refugee and immigrant families, and we received an outpouring of support through donations from our community.  These basic necessities provided stability for families experiencing crisis, and are continuing to provide ongoing supportive services as we navigate the aftermath of this disaster.

In virtual “tutor talks” this year, volunteers asked questions about how they could be advocates for the populations we serve, and volunteers helped get people to the polls to vote.  More than 200 food boxes were assembled and delivered to refugee and immigrant families experiencing food insecurity.  These are just a few of the ways that you have inspired and helped the community this past year!

“It’s clear that the community is engaged and wanting to help”.  Katie says that community interest has been high since the derecho.  In fact, since July 1st of 2020, volunteers have donated more than 8,000 hours of their time, and 158 have been new to CMC.  This is incredible, given the current pandemic!

In the future, we look forward to seeing more of both new and long-time volunteers around CMC.  “Vaccines are rolling out and we’re looking forward to welcoming people into our building when they feel comfortable,” adds Katie.

April 18 -24 is National Volunteer week, so we could think of no better way to say “thank you,” than to feature all those who have helped us in the last year.

Thanks for all you do to make Cedar Rapids a welcoming community!

 

 

 

 

 

Earth Day at CMC

April 22nd is Earth Day, a day to honor our connection to the planet we live on and make sure we’re doing our best to help rather than harm our Earth community. Our staff, residents, and clients have a lot to say about why the Earth is important and what we can do to help.

The Earth matters to us because, in the words of a student, “we live on this world and we get everything we need to live from Earth.” This is the home for all people, and where all of our food and water comes from. “It sustains all life,” adds a resident, reminding us of the diversity of creatures that share their home with us. And what we do to Earth is what we do to ourselves, since, as Kristin from Womens’ Services observes “we don’t have another […] home to go to.”

What are We Doing?

On Earth Day it’s important to  “inspect what you’re doing,” says Kristin. How are your actions and the actions of the people and institutions around you helping or harming our patch of Earth? Many residents note that disposing of waste by recycling or composting it instead of littering can reduce harmful pollution. In addition, doing our best to use and create systems of transportation, farming, and building that use renewable resources instead of fossil fuels is an important project to keep the climate from becoming even more unstable. To one student, the most important thing is that “the Earth should be a safe place” to live, work, and play.

To observe and celebrate the holiday, one resident has organized the One Bag Challenge, a time to help remove litter from the CMC neighborhood. Staff, residents, and clients will be helping on Earth Day afternoon. This will help “be part of the solution, not the problem” by keeping toxic plastics out of the soil and water where they can harm plants and animals. Others plan to garden and plant trees to help Cedar Rapids’ plant community recover from the derecho. What are you going to do this Earth Day?

 

Words to Know:

Diversity – Many different types of people, animals, plants, or other things

Pollution – Things people make that go into the air, water, or soil and can hurt living things

Transportation – The ways we move from place to place

Renewable Resource – Something from the Earth that grows back and keeps the land safe

Fossil Fuel – Coal, natural gas, oil, and other things that people burn to make machines work.

Climate – The types of weather that happen often in a place

Nonviolence Critical Concern Community Feature: Sr. Cora Marie Billings

To celebrate Women’s History Month, CMC highlights stories of women in our community addressing the Critical Concerns of the Sisters of Mercy. In this final week, we examine the importance of Nonviolence and highlight the impact and interwoven nature of the critical concerns by reaching out to Cora Marie Billings, a Sister of Mercy who is outspoken about racism, violence, and its effect on our neighbors.

Firsts

Sr. Cora Marie’s connection to the Catholic faith stems back to her great grandfather, a slave for the Jesuit community at Georgetown in the late 1700s. He was raised in the Catholic faith and eventually moved his family to Sr. Cora Marie’s hometown of Philadelphia. Under her great grandfather’s wishes, Catholicism was retained through generations of her family. But even as a “cradle Catholic”, Sr. Cora Marie’s upbringing in the Roman Catholic church was difficult at times due to the treatment she received at school and within the local ministry as an African American woman. Withstanding these obstacles, her dedication to her faith did not waiver, and  ten years after Black Sisters were accepted into Sisterhood, Sr. Cora Marie became the first African American Sister from Philadelphia in 1956.

This was not the only ‘first’ title that Sr. Cora Marie would attain in her life. In 1968, she became a co-founder of the first National Black Sister’s Conference (NBSC) in Pittsburgh, a turning point in Sr. Cora Marie’s life as she began recognizing the need to work against racism and for Black liberation. Realizing the impact racism had on her life and on society as a whole began with important conversations with her fellow Black Sisters about race and faith. Immediately after the NBSC, Sr. Cora Marie returned home and attended a Black Power civil rights protest. “My cousin picked me up from the convent and took me to be a part of the movement. That was one of the first times that I was active in the movement and in solidarity with my Black brothers and sisters. This was not something that Sisters always would or could do. I went, I learned from it, and I became a different person because of it,” Sr. Cora Marie stated. 

Racism and Nonviolence Today

During our conversation with Sr. Cora Marie, we discussed the intersection of racism and nonviolence, and how the philosophy of nonviolence has impacted anti-racism work in the U.S. “With the tension of the 1960s movements after King’s assassination, people didn’t look at what King was really speaking to. Although he died violently, he was always speaking and pushing for nonviolence.” When asked about the status of the movement and the philosophy of nonviolence today, Sr. Cora Marie shared, “Today, some things are even worse. There was a song in the ’60s… I think it was Peter Paul and Mary’s ‘When Will They Ever Learn?’. We’ve gone through all of this so many times; people have been killed, there have been lynchings… a lot of those things are still happening today. A large part of the problem is that in the United States, we train people to fight or bully violently. We TRAIN our police to be violent… Yes, there are responsibilities as a police officer, but it can be done in a nonviolent way that doesn’t take away the rights (or life) from someone.” 

Creating Change

When asked about how we create change, Sister Cora Marie made it very clear that nonviolence was and still is a value that our country needs to learn in order to make any difference in the fight against racism. “I need you as much as you need me. We need to be relational with each other… We (as Catholics) talk about being a part of the body of Christ, and when we say that, that means that what happens to one of us is happening to all of us… If someone is suffering from racism or violence, then we all are suffering. Until we become relational and listen to each other, racism (and violence) will persist.” 

Sr. Cora Marie even noted the impact that the value of nonviolence has had on how she discusses racism: “With the idea of nonviolence, I had to change my language around racism. I no longer talk about choosing my battles; I talk about choosing my challenges.” 

Through all of the injustice and violence, Sr. Cora Marie still finds hope in the face of systemic racism. Obstacles like police brutality persist in the United States, and the Summer of 2020 was one example of the ways that violence and racism hurt us all. Sr. Cora Marie believes that it is our responsibility to respond in a way that will not perpetuate such hurt. “It is horrible for anyone who dies violently, and I think George Floyd’s death was a moment that is creating change. (Society) will accept the challenges of racism at different times, and this is one of those times. And things are changing… The hope is that there are more people that are becoming aware and trying to be aware. If we continually deny the evil that is present, things will never change. Having people that are willing to talk and willing to learn is a big part of the hope that I have to fundamentally change our society.”

We would like to thank Sister Cora Marie Billings for her willingness to speak with us, and with audiences across the country, about her life and legacy in anti-racism and nonviolence work with the Sisters of Mercy. May we all take time to listen to one another and be relational in an effort to put an end to racism and violence.