Would you like to learn more about what refugees experience? Are you looking for materials to help others understand why millions around the globe have been forced to flee their homes? Please check out this list of educational and informational resources compiled from CMC staff.
Through the challenges and changes of the past several years, community members like you have given us reasons to celebrate time and time again:
For years, volunteer tutors squeezed into a room filled with as many study spaces as possible to teach and encourage adult learners.
Caring neighbors brought welcome signs and balloons to greet refugee newcomers at the airport, and offered support as job coaches as the Center expanded refugee resettlement and support services.
Catherine McAuley Center supporters helped us pack up more than two decades of history from our former building and move into our new space!
Local citizens got to work to launch a temporary shelter for refugees displaced from their apartments after the derecho, and ensured everyone was relocated to permanent housing within 60 days, while pitching in to mitigate damages to the new facility we’d moved into just one month before.
Volunteers of all kinds shifted to teaching online, while others stepped in to provide lunch to young English learners who navigated online learning in the one undamaged wing of the Catherine McAuley Center’s new facility.
Staff and community collaborators worked to expand services for more than 100 unhoused individuals right here in Cedar Rapids as homelessness counts reached record highs in summer 2021.
With open arms, our community welcomed 249 Afghans who quickly fled their home country for safety in the matter of just five months, making for more refugee arrivals in a single period of time than CMC had ever seen!
Behind all of this, an incredible team of fundraising volunteers, steering committee members, and staff pressed on with A Place of Welcome: The Campaign to Expand the Catherine McAuley Center to ensure the Center’s location would not just meet the current needs, but would be a place where our neighbors could find hope and opportunity for years to come.
Admittedly, the Place of Welcome campaign was paused a few times to focus staff efforts on critical services for our clients in the face of the global and local crises mentioned above. But today, we are pleased to announce that we have raised $5 million and are celebrating the completion of the campaign!
Thank you to every volunteer and contributor who helped create our new Place of Welcome. Your support has already provided countless opportunities for the Center to meet the needs of our time in ways that there was simply no space for prior to July 2020. Just watch Jacques’ story for one example of the hope people find through the educational & supportive services at the Catherine McAuley Center!
Director of Development & Communications
It’s National Internship Day! Meet Anna Butz–a bilingual, a parent, an Iowan, an educator, and once again, a student! Her robust love of learning and discovery led to her obtaining her Master’s in Education, but she’s not stopping there. Anna shared her talents as a Women’s Services Intern at Catherine McAuley Center in conjunction with her pursuit of a degree in Human services. Read on to learn more about Anna’s experiences and accomplishments!
Where are you from, and what is your background?
My name is Anna, I’m 30 years old, and a single mom. I went to high school in Mt. Vernon, and went on to gain my Master’s in Education in 2018 from DePauw University. As part of my education I spent 6 months in Colombia, and have worked in higher education at Cornell College since graduating.
In January I began taking coursework pursuing a Human services degree.
What was your first experience with volunteering your time to an organization or a cause you cared about?
I grew up in an agricultural background, did 4H, and when I was in highschool I volunteered at the Democratic caucus. When I was in college I volunteered as an English Tutor at the Center, did an internship with Justice for Our Neighbors.
What drew you to become an intern at CMC?
Field experiences are a required part of my Human Services coursework over a summer, and this was a way to make that happen. My family is from Cedar Rapids and had connections to the Center, so we reached out to Paula and Katie via email wanting to do field placement, and I was directed to Women’s Services.
I just loved it! I really enjoy working with women and adults. I’ve taught kids, teens, adults, so I’ve had a lot of experience, but I found that I love working with women and adults the most. I’m interested in getting my certified drug and alcohol counseling certificate.
What is your favorite thing about serving and working with the community that you do?
I just loved it, I loved the people I worked with, and I am figuring this out at 30. I really enjoy the women being honest, and I really like that. I like being real with them. I’ve experienced a little bit of, and I have an ability to relate to them at some levels. I really enjoy talking about substance abuse, and started a support group for friends of family of people facing substance abuse challenges.
I think that I hadn’t had a lot of experience working with homelessness, and that was really great to have experience with that. I like being able to sit down and talk about things with the women. I was able to practice a trauma informed approach, even if I had only taken one semester of coursework. I was able to apply what I had learned, and I loved that my internship was so hands-on. The WS team had me talking to the women who lived there, I did room checks, stuff that probably 10 years ago would have intimidated me, so I just loved it! I spent time doing what needed to be done, and I learned a ton.
What were some of your highs and lows during your internship?
People stepping into leadership roles and getting the chance to watch team members practice case management as fantastic social workers. I got to observe them talking with clients and building relationships, learn more about how the Center does things and the role that it has in the community. I just learned so much.
Working in the Transitional Housing program, and getting that unique experience and social work setting. In individual case management, you are also trying to make sure people get along and it really allows you to have a deeper relationship with them.
Those sorts of groups where we can talk about our lived experiences, and hey, we’re all different, but we’ve been through this. So finding those commonalities and lived experiences, the challenges of homelessness, all of that is helpful and making for a cohesive group.
It’s great that the WS team has found ways that the women can connect over a focus of healing, healthy relationships, resume building, etc.
A few times clients had to leave the program, and that was so difficult. We formed relationships and it can be hard when someone has to go. It was so good to be around during those times of transition, and learn more how to manage a work-life balance. We can’t take it all on.
All of these things were a very useful and usable experience.
What is your hope for the long term impact of your role and work?
I would love to work at CMC when I am able to, I really enjoyed it. I worked 10-20 hours a week, in addition to my regular job and being a single parent. Going there did not feel like going to work. I would look forward to it just because I wanted to be there.
I would like to do more drug and alcohol counseling, and I did some of that. This internship will prepare me to do that work in the future, and learn the challenges, the strengths, the resources available.The Women’s Services team works so hard, deal with a lot, they are on-call outside of work hours, and they deserve to be recognized from their work. By being women-centered and available to the residents during the day, the Center provides something that isn’t available everywhere, and staff are constantly educating themselves to better their services. I think that work that Women’s Services is doing is so important.
The Catherine McAuley Center has welcomed 250 Afghans to Eastern Iowa over the last year. As these newcomers make their homes in Cedar Rapids, we will share updates and opportunities to support resettlement efforts here:
Ways To Support Resettlement
Offer Information on Housing Resources – One of the greatest current needs is for permanent housing. We welcome landlords or others with connections to housing, to share those opportunities with staff. Please contact us at 319-363-4993 or email email@example.com.
Donate – One of the best ways to help is by donating unrestricted funding. As we seek new support through case management, and as various needs come up during the resettlement process, unrestricted funding allows CMC to best meet the needs of the communities we serve.
Supply items from our wish list to stock our food pantry or setup welcoming homes for new arrivals.
Contact Congress – Join CMC in calling on representatives to pass an Afghan Adjustment Act to provide at-risk Afghans a permanent legal pathway to safety. Follow these quick steps to tell your Congress Representatives: Afghans deserve safety that lasts.
Have you or someone you cared about ever experienced a panic attack, and you didn’t know what to do? Most people will experience a time in their lives where life has become overwhelming, and the body and mind begin to respond in ways that can be confusing for both the individual experiencing the symptoms, but also for those of us who care about the individual who is struggling.
Many have gone through CPR training or first aid training to help someone in physical danger or injury, but what should we do when someone is having a mental health crisis? What signs and symptoms should you look for?
To further develop their expertise in supporting individuals with mental health and substance abuse concerns, Women’s Services Case Managers at CMC, Bella Burns and Lucia McNeal, completed the Mental Health First Aid training at the Abbe Mental Health Center.
Through this training, Bella and Lucia learned tips on what to do when someone is experiencing a mental health crisis, and also gained tips on what not to do. Below, they share some of the key takeaways from the training that have helped inform their work as case managers, as well as helpful tips for anyone who may be experiencing or responding to a mental health crisis.
The first tip is to remember the acronym ALGEE. Mental Health First Aid teaches participants a five-step action plan, ALGEE, “to use when providing support to someone who may be experiencing a distressing situation, just as you would if you were administering first aid for a fall.”
What are everyday signs that someone, including ourselves, is in struggle with their mental health?
A person may be struggling with disordered eating, like not eating for hours or unable to stop eating, sleep disturbance, anger that doesn’t match a given situation, missed deadlines, and lack of concentration. Another person may be experiencing withdrawn behavior, emotional outbursts, lack of personal hygiene, and no interest in their usual activities. Sometimes these changes can be subtle and can look different from person to person. It is important to always respond to others and ourselves with compassion and understanding, and to look at the person, and the reasons why they may be struggling.
How do we recognize someone is in crisis?
Someone may be at a breaking point, feeling hopeless, experiencing dark thoughts that nothing will ever get better, or any number of things. But it’s helpful to know what symptoms to look for that can be seen from the outside as clues that someone may be in crisis, such as:
Shortness of breath
Paranoia, feelings of surveillance
Irritability, rage attacks, anger outbursts
Sentences that don’t make sense and are hard to follow
Unaware of what day or year it is
Unable to use logic to think through what they are experiencing
Acting in ways they would not usually act, and unable to calm themselves down
You’ve identified that someone is in crisis –now what?
Bella and Lucia shared from professional experience, strategies that could be both helpful and unhelpful to someone in crisis. While it’s difficult to plan for every situation, here are some tips they shared:
Keep your cool
Try to look at the person with empathy
Listen to what that person is saying
Monitor yourself and how you are doing
Be aware of what your resources are
Stay with them while they are in distress
If you must leave, ask if they are comfortable with you contacting someone for them, and remain with them until someone else can come help if it’s safe to do so
Speak in calm tones
Realize that now is not the time to try to be relatable
Understand that saying things like “it’s going to be okay” can be unhelpful
Better things to say are “I’m here, I’m listening, I care about how you’re feeling and what you’re going through.”
What are some ways our community can support mental health first responders?
Being a mental health first responder is both exhausting and rewarding, and has the capability to save lives. But how can we help ‘the helpers’? “I wish people knew more about secondary trauma and how it is different than burnout,” Lucia shared. “Being a crisis responder, the situations replay over and over in your head, just like anyone doing front line work. Just because first responders know how to do this work does not mean we are invincible.”
Social workers and case managers are only human, after all, but they play a very important role in the work at CMC. Take time out to thank a provider, a friend, or someone you know who supports others! Care for yourself, and find ways you can prepare to help someone else. We can help share the burden of care by educating ourselves, taking action, and being prepared!
As always, the Catherine McAuley Center stands ready and willing to resettle any displaced person when called upon to do so by our D.C. partners, the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI). We believe that every person has the right to safety and freedom from violence and persecution, and we are proud to help refugee newcomers make their new homes in Eastern Iowa.
The U.S. response to the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine is subject to change quickly. Check back to this post for updates regarding U.S. resettlement of Ukrainians as new information becomes available!
April 21, 2022: The Biden administration announced news of Uniting for Ukraine, a parole program allowing Ukrainians with familial, community or organizational sponsors, to apply for temporary refuge in the United States for a period of up to two years. To qualify, Ukrainians must have a sponsor in the U.S. who agrees to provide them with financial support for the duration of their stay.
Ukrainians approved via this process will be authorized to travel to the U.S. and be considered for parole, on a case-by-case basis. Once paroled through this process, Ukrainians will be eligible for work authorization. At this time, the Uniting for Ukraine program does not authorize resettlement benefits or federal public benefits, such as refugee cash assistance or Medicaid, nor does it provide a clear pathway to permanent residency for those who desire to stay in the U.S. long-term.
For more information, or to apply for sponsorship, please see the U.S. Citizenship & Immigration Services (USCIS) website. Please note: the Iowa Bureau of Refugee Services is coordinating this program for the state of Iowa. Though resettlement agencies like CMC are not conducting these resettlement efforts, CMC remains available to support the needs of any immigrant or refugee looking for support to navigate community resources and pursue employment goals.
March 24, 2022: President Biden announced that the U.S. will admit up to 100,000 Ukrainians, presumably over the next year and a half, though the exact pace of resettlement is uncertain. For comparison, 75,000 Afghans were resettled nationwide between September 2021 and February 2022.
Refugee resettlement agencies like CMC are contracted to provide comprehensive support for a refugee’s first 90 days in the U.S. and have a full picture of a refugee’s history, needs, and progress toward self-sufficiency (see more on the resettlement process). We ask that community members and partner agencies who may develop connections with our newest neighbors coordinate with us in this work.
Refugee resettlement is a federal process. While legislators, state officials, other nonprofits, and community members may be able to support additional resources for refugee families, only refugee resettlement agencies can conduct resettlement.
To-date, no special pathways (like Special Immigrant Visas or Humanitarian Parole, statuses available to Afghans) have been created for Ukrainians, meaning they will have to follow the traditional refugee resettlement process, which can be a lengthy process of up to two-years.
What you can do:
While the humanitarian crises in Ukraine and Afghanistan are especially prominent in current media coverage, the reality is that people across the globe have been displaced from their homes due to humanitarian crises. The Catherine McAuley Center also resettles refugees from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burma, and other locations throughout the year.
Regardless of the status of Ukrainian resettlement, you can help refugees from across the world feel welcomed in Eastern Iowa in the following ways:
Volunteer on a Saturday to help set up a new home for refugees as a moving volunteer.
Donate furniture, household items, or other supplies on our wish list to meet the basic needs of our newest neighbors. You can also ship items from our Amazon wish list directly to CMC.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and while everyone’s experiences are unique, maintaining a healthy mind is an important part of our overall health and well-being, as it affects how we think, feel, and act. Taking care of mental health can look different for everyone, whether it involves spending more time with friends and family, forming a new hobby, exercising more, or speaking with a counselor – there are many tools to help build positive mental health. One of the strategies for better management of stress or trauma recovery can be awareness of self, and reflecting on inner emotions that are experienced throughout the day.
“Inside every one of us is a garden, and every practitioner has to go back to their garden and take care of it” – Buddhist monk and mindfulness teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh
One way to tend your inner garden is to tend to a physical one! Today is National Garden Meditation Day, celebrated every year on May 3. It is the practice of taking time out from one’s hectic routine and going to a garden, picking a nice spot, and then meditating to relax your mind and body.
At the Catherine McAuley Center, the Community Garden creates opportunities to learn new skills, practice self-care, and form meaningful connections. Clients, residents, and community members can learn about and grow their own plots of produce, and take time to relax in nature.
Garden groups at CMC: Q & A with Kristin Bratton, Director of Women’s Services
Helping residents and clients access nature in a hands-on and inclusive way, Director of Women’s Services, Kristin Bratton shares about the programs at CMC that encourage women, adult learners, and refugees and immigrants to enjoy gardening and reconnecting with themselves and nature. Kristin, a longtime gardener and Master Gardener intern, loves Gerber daisies, carrots and potatoes, but has yet to grow a zucchini that she’s satisfied with.
What is your personal experience with gardening?
I started gardening as a tiny tot with my mother and grandmother. It has been in my family on a small scale of backyard gardening. I’ve grown my own garden for close to a decade, but CMC was able to provide professional development for me to become an intern as a Master Gardener. Master Gardeners utilize and rely heavily on the sciences like botany and other sciences, and apply researched knowledge to gardening. I’ve been able to share that knowledge with my clients so they can accomplish their goals in gardening.
How did the garden program get started?
It started over 5 years ago, first focusing on helping clients and residents become more food secure. Now things have shifted to take on more of a therapeutic approach toward gardening, and with the help of the Master Gardeners program, CMC was able to install raised beds for residents and clients. We currently have 7 women who are set to participate this year!
What are the benefits of therapeutic gardening programs?
Physical activity creates endorphins, getting Vitamin D from sunlight, and the grounding aspects of the grass, soil, the trees. Having our hands in the soil exposes us to good kinds of microbiology. Gardening lowers blood pressure and when you’re gardening, you can focus on the now rather than the future or past goals. You’re helping life and you are seeing it first hand!
What is your hope for the gardening group?
My hope is to practice hands-on mindfulness, for it to become an automatic practice to see nature as a grounding tool. I want clients to find pleasure not just from gardening, but from the food that they grow and prepare into satisfying and beautiful dishes.
What are ways that anyone can experience more meditative peace in gardening?
You don’t even have to be actively gardening! Start by engaging your senses, smelling, touching and listening, becoming grounded and present.
Meet Bailey Wilson – a passionate volunteer who has a vision for where she’s headed and the work she wants to do along the way. Originally from Pella, Iowa, she came to CMC as a volunteer with AmeriCorps, and serves in the Women’s Services department of CMC. Her official title is Race, Gender, and Homelessness VISTA, and she hopes her research that she is conducting in the year of her service has a lasting impact at CMC. She has been volunteering consistently since finishing college, and hopes to continue her education by experience and by pursuing graduate school.
What was your first experience with volunteering?
Technically, it was involuntarily; I was a teenager, and a friend and I were pouring orange juice and milk for people at a pancake breakfast. Later on, after I was finished with college and during the pandemic I volunteered willingly! I volunteered with the food bank in my hometown of Pella, IA, and later with a volunteer campaign as well as with the ACLU. For me in general, it’s important to do work that aligns with my values. I was between work and college, and I needed to fill my time in a meaningful way. I found volunteering to be a good way to find fulfillment, build my resume, and stay connected.
How did you find out about the AmeriCorps program, and what drew you to this position?
I was unemployed, looking to grow my skill set and network, and volunteering to build my career path due to my interest in nonprofits. I had a friend in AmeriCorps in another state, and I was looking for a way to volunteer full-time, to be a paid volunteer. I saw it as something similar to an internship structure. I was really drawn to the social equity as well as the research aspect of the position, as I hope to pursue grad school in the future.
What are you working on currently?
In my role I’m conducting interviews with women and other gender minorities who have experienced any kind of homelessness, whether it’s living in transitional housing, doubling up, living in shelters, or completely unhoused. I’m focusing on listening to their stories; what are their needs in terms of resources? What are the gaps in the services they receive? I am focused on their voices; they know what they need and to lift up their voices and help them be heard. My work is person-centered, and driven by the community I serve.
What is your favorite thing about serving and working with the community that you do?
Being a listening ear to people, and seeing people able to speak to the gaps and shortcomings in the community. You get to see peoples’ humanity and to see them impact our work as providers. I really like hearing people express themselves so clearly and be ready to share what their needs are.
What is your hope for the long term impact of your role and work?
My hope is that providers are able to be more responsive to the needs of those they serve. I would love to see how what I’m doing within the agency impacts it, on both a small and large scale. I would love to see more agencies engaging around client feedback, for the clients to become part of the leadership, implementing change where the research shows it is necessary. I would like to see agencies able to ask for feedback anonymously about providers, what additional skill sets their providers could have that they as the client could benefit from. My hope is that [our community can] become more client-centered, and that they could share, “If I was in charge, this is how things would be.” I want to have the voices listened to and the changes to be implemented.
What surprised you about your role at CMC?
There was a lot of room within this project to redefine the scope, and a lot of freedom to define it on my own. Race, Gender, and Homelessness are very broad descriptors. I’ve been able to ask myself how we could tie in these things and narrow down the scope in a helpful way that results in capacity building.
What skills are you developing to use in your future career?
In a broader sense, communication skills. I’ve been able to better understand how to redirect, ask for what I need. I’ve been told I’m really good at boundaries. Specific to my project, I’m learning how to navigate and direct a conversation, and practice active listening. Within the interview, I’m finding out how to build rapport with a person in a short time frame, build trust, and try to make my interviewee more comfortable. I’m navigating sensitive research interview skills, and sensitive listening to focus on building that trust.
What do you hope to do after finishing your AmeriCorps term with CMC?
I would like to work with the CMC in the short term! Advocacy in service to the LGBTQ+ community, either through working with the ACLU or One Iowa is in the long term plan. I would like to leave the Midwest to pursue more education, and perhaps go into academia and research. I want the ability though to find that out and I feel like my experiences will guide me to what that looks like!
Join CMC in demanding that Congress pass an Afghan Adjustment Act in order to provide at-risk Afghans a permanent legal pathway to safety. Follow the steps at the bottom of the page to tell your Congress Representatives: Afghans deserve safety that lasts.
Following the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan, tens of thousands of U.S.-affiliated and at-risk Afghans were evacuated to the United States via humanitarian parole, a temporary allowance to enter and remain in the United States for one or two years. Despite receiving this life-saving evacuation, Afghans under this status will soon find themselves under a cloud of legal uncertainty, and in a worse position in terms of immigration status than had they entered as Special Immigrant Visa holders (SIVs) or refugees through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP).
To resolve this, Congress must pass the Afghan Adjustment Act, patterned after similar adjustment acts passed following previous U.S. wartime evacuations, including for Cubans after the rise of Castro, Southeast Asians after the Fall of Saigon, and Iraqi Kurds during the rule of Saddam Hussein.
What is the Afghan Adjustment Act?
The Afghan Adjustment Act allows certain Afghan evacuees to apply for permanent status after one year of being paroled into the country. It prevents Afghans paroled in the U.S. from losing their jobs or being deported while their applications for these statuses are pending.
How did the U.S. government vet and screen evacuees?
Intelligence, law enforcement, and counterterrorism professionals conducted a robust, multi-layered screening and security vetting process that includes review of biographic and biometric data checked against U.S. and Interpol intelligence databases, as well as pre- and post-arrival medical screenings and vaccinations. These screenings were conducted for all Afghans before they arrived in the United States and again once when they arrived in America, while most were housed over months on military bases across the U.S. If at any time an individual does not pass a screening, they are deemed inadmissible or deportable, depending on where they are in the process. As a result, that individual and their family cannot enter the United States or are subject to deportation from the U.S.
What happens to Afghan evacuees if the Adjustment Act isn’t passed?
Without an Afghan Adjustment Act, tens of thousands of recently arrived Afghans will have to find an existing immigration pathway in order to remain in lawful status once their parole expires. In all likelihood, that will mean tens of thousands of new asylum claims at an estimated cost of $700,000,000 in legal services to support Afghans through the arduous asylum application process. The current affirmative asylum backlog is more than 600,000 cases with a broader immigration backlog of 1.4 million cases. Many Afghan evacuees were forced to destroy important documentation during the evacuation in order to avoid Taliban violence across a patchwork of checkpoints around the country. Many Afghan visa applicants (and others) had important documentation destroyed by the U.S. Embassy in Kabul as the city fell. Such complications could make asylum claims more difficult and increase the likelihood that Afghan parolees will end up in already-overwhelmed immigration courts and eligible for deportation.
The Afghan Adjustment Act meets well-established precedent, but it does something else which is fundamentally important: it meets the moral obligations we have to those who served alongside the U.S. mission and it provides lasting stability to Afghans who were brought to safety by the U.S. following the longest military engagement in American history.
Congress must act now to pass an Afghan Adjustment Act.
Follow these steps to contact Senators and Congress Representatives:
Step 1: Find your Congressperson’s email addresshere.
Step 3: Copy and Paste each email address into an email window, and enter in the Subject Line “Pass the Afghan Adjustment Act”
Step 4: Copy and paste the following text into the email body – feel free to adjust and/or add any personal messages!
Dear Congressperson/Senator Name,
As your constituent from city/town, I am writing to ask for your support for an Afghan Adjustment Act to allow Afghans who entered the United States on humanitarian parole to have a pathway to permanent legal status. Creating a track to apply to become lawful permanent residents after one year in the U.S. will strengthen arrivals’ integration in their new communities. This is urgent, as humanitarian parole is a temporary allowance to enter and remain in the United States, and is only viable for two years. We have already supported the resettlement of these parolees with money and resources, and they will undoubtedly contribute greatly to our communities – this indefinite limbo of unstable immigration status creates a chasm between Afghan evacuees and their ability to fully settle into their new home. I urge you to pass the Afghan Adjustment Act so that our Afghan allies can live prosperous lives as Americans, something which they all deserve.
Thank you for taking action to ensure your new Afghan neighbors can have a safe and stable life in the United States!
The Iowa City Foreign Relations Council (ICFRC) seeks to promote greater understanding of international issues by hosting community discussions featuring expert speakers from around the world. ICFRC’s current project, “Refugees and Immigrants in Iowa” is a six part educational series intended to amplify the voices of refugees and immigrants, as well as highlight the state and local agencies who welcome and support them.
Catherine McAuley Center’s Employment Services Case Manager, Rex Mwamba and Elizabeth Bernal, on CMC’s Board of Directors, were featured as key speakers on the project’s latest discussion, “Life in Iowa as a Refugee and Immigrant.” Along with Rex and Elizabeth, other key speakers include Zalmay Niazy, owner of Zee’s Handyman Services, LLC and Ines Pecuvcic-Jasarovic, Refugee Specialist for the Bureau of Refugee Services in Des Moines.
Moving to a new country is a big change, bringing new challenges, as well as new opportunities. In this session they discuss how the experience of moving to Iowa differs for people from different walks of life – refugee, immigrant, documented, undocumented, those with familial ties in the area and those without. Also discussed are the many agencies who support new Iowans, and ways that people native to the United States can help to make refugees and immigrants feel safe and welcomed.
Each speaker shares some of the main challenges facing refugees and immigrants they work with, and the difficulties they face themselves after migrating to Iowa. Apart from the cold weather, each agrees that language is the one of the biggest obstacles, followed by having few or no local family ties and support. Elizabeth and Rex explain, coming to a new country, you don’t have the language, the support, or the resources you need, and it’s extremely difficult. Each person comes to a new country from different issues, but they all come to feel safe. Being in a new place unable to understand anyone and not knowing who to ask for help can feel overwhelming.
Another difficulty is the common misconception about the various immigration statuses and the reasons people migrate to the United States. Immigrants are people with “a strong desire to move from a country to another country. They decide themselves they want to move to another country, maybe to have a better life.” says Rex – “But refugees, it’s totally different. Refugees are forced from their country to another…They didn’t want to come…they were forced to.” Zalmay further explains that refugees and immigrants, including newly arrived Afghans, had homes, jobs, and some type of normal life before they came to the United States, and they face new problems here.
Knowing these challenges, what can native Iowans do to help refugees and immigrants adjust to life in Iowa? Elizabeth says it can be as simple as a smile – “With one smile I think they feel welcome. If you just go and say hi to your neighbor and want to learn more, just be open to learning more about your neighbor or other people…You can be really friendly to people and that makes a huge difference I think for anyone…Now it’s not only for refugees and immigrants, but I think everyone needs a smile…no matter where you come from.”
She also explains that if someone seems unresponsive to your welcoming, try to remember that they may have trauma from their past, you don’t know the path they left behind. If refugees and immigrants already have those challenges, to make it less heavy on their shoulders – support them, welcome them, as simple as offering one smile, they feel like they have access to somebody. Elizabeth says from her personal experience, that kindness makes the community feel like a safe place for refugees and immigrants who often question if they’re welcome.
Ines reminds us that others often forget to consider the traumatic experiences that refugees endured coming from war zones, from conflict zones – “We need to be open, we need to be good listeners, and learn from these newcomers…Language is not always an obstacle. There are ways to understand people even if you don’t speak the same language.”
Another simple way to be welcoming?“Put yourself in their own shoes, share a meal with a refugee or an immigrant, do something to hear and learn about their experiences. They are amazing people, they are survivors, and there are great organizations that are ready to serve them” says Ines.
Organizations like the Catherine McAuley Center (CMC) and the Bureau of Refugee Services provide opportunities aimed at minimizing these challenges and offering a community of support. Life for refugees and immigrants, agreed the speakers, would be even more difficult without services and organizations to assist them.
Speaking about his role at Catherine McAuley Center, Rex explains CMC’s program that helps refugees when they first arrive by providing cash assistance, help finding homes, employment and job-seeking support, and connection to other agencies and resources. “Once they start working and become self-sufficient…they can be on their own, and if they need to change their job, or they need education, or they need something else, we will always be there to help.”
Watch the full program and gain deeper insight into what Iowans and those native to the United States should know about their neighbors from other countries, the obstacles they face, and steps you can take to be welcoming and supportive.
Rex Mwamba is the Employment Services Case Manager at Catherine McAuley Center, and the founder of his company, World Development. Born in and originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rex arrived in the United States in 2013 to pursue his career. Rex has a bachelor’s degree in Computer Science, Telecommunication and Network Administration from the DRC. After he completed the English program at Kirkwood Community College , Rex obtained an IT certificate and an associate degree in Network & System Administration. Today, Rex furthers CMC’s mission by resettling and integrating refugees from all over the world into the Cedar Rapids community.
Elizabeth Bernal serves on the Catherine McAuley Center’s board, and shealso works as a cultural liaison for Iowa City schools. Elizabeth arrived in the United States from Mexico City when she was 18 years old. She is co-founder of Open Heartland, a nonprofit serving families in Johnson County mobile home communities whose residents are mainly Hispanic immigrants. She’s a founding member of the board of Eastern Iowa Community Bond Project, an organization that pays immigration bond for incarcerated Iowa immigrants who cannot afford their bond. Elizabeth also serves on the Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa’s board, and she was inducted into the Iowa Latino Hall of Fame in 2021.
Zalmay Niazy is the owner of Zee’s Handyman Services, LLC in Iowa Falls. He was born in a rural village in the Urozgan province of Afghanistan and learned to speak fluent English at the age of thirteen. Zalmay worked as an interpreter for several branches of the United States armed forces upon graduating from high school. He has a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from Kardan University in Kabul, and he has worked for different national and international organizations, including Titan Linguists, Red Orange International, and Qabaiel General Supplies.
Ines Pecuvcic-Jasarovic is a Refugee Specialist for the Bureau of Refugee Services in Des Moines, where she has worked for 26 years. She was born and raised in Sibenik, Croatia and graduated from the University of Sarajevo in Bosnia and Hercegovina in 1988 with a degree in teaching. Due to the conflict in former Yugoslavia, Ines, her husband, and their daughter had to flee Bosnia in1992 and started a refugee journey across Croatia, resettling in Chicago in 1993.Her spouse was reunited with the family in 1995. Ines also worked for Interchurch Refugee and Immigration Services in Chicago, and today she provides several services to prepare clients for their employment and education goals.