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Empowering Refugees in Worcester

Geri and her son, Jo, usually wake up around 4:30 in the morning, when she washes and prepares breakfast for him. Two hours later, Geri carries Jo to a friend’s house more than one-half mile away. During winter months in Massachusetts, temperatures at this hour can hover around zero degrees. Jo will stay at the friend’s house, waiting for a bus to bring him to daycare. Geri will not see her son off to school, however, because she has to walk back home, where a driver picks her up and brings her to work thirty minutes away.

Recently Geri sat in my office, a pile of mail stacked in her lap. I sorted through the letters, discovering that her food stamps (SNAP benefits) needed to be recertified. It takes about two weeks to recertify Geri’s SNAP benefits. During this time, we helped her sign up for WIC (Women, Infants and Children), a federal nutritional assistance program for mothers of infants and young children found to be at risk of food insecurity or malnutrition.

“When my food stamps were stopped [early last month], I had to use money to buy food for me and Jo,” Geri tells me.

While Geri completed a SNAP-Path-to-Work program in December, sponsored by Worcester’s local community college, Quinsigamond, and funded through the Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA), she has had trouble finding full-time employment in her area of training — home health aide.

Additionally, the hours of Geri’s part-time job have been reduced, as the holiday season when business was booming has passed. She struggles to pay her rent and phone bills, on top of the $45 she owes weekly for childcare and nearly $80 she must pay every week for transportation

In late January, Geri began worrying about her upcoming rent payment. She shares a room with other refugees, paying $300 per month. This is an affordable rate considering how housing prices across Worcester are skyrocketing. However, by the first of the month, Geri only has $28 in her account and anxiously awaits the arrival of her next paycheck.

Living paycheck to paycheck is the reality for many people trying to navigate rising housing costs and general living expenses. When you couple this stress with many refugees’ history of trauma and depression, on top of balancing English classes and working low-skill and often arduous jobs, most of our clients barely get by.

On the day of my writing this blog post, Geri’s son, Jo, has been sick with a high fever. The daycare will not accept him, out of fear of getting other children sick. So Geri has to decide whether to stay home with her sick child or be absent from work. She is afraid that missing another day of work will set her further behind in affording rent.

This type of compounded disadvantage, as social researchers have termed it, tends to disproportionately affect the poorest and most vulnerable members of American society. Refugees tend to occupy lower economic classes, having been forced to leave behind their livelihoods and start anew in a foreign land with limited financial support.

Moreover, the stories people tell of America abroad can differ sharply with people’s everyday realities. “Many in the camp think the streets are paved with gold,” one Nepali interpreter told me about Bhutanese refugees’ perspective of America. The struggles of integration tend to break down these visions of America, however, and left in their wake are communities like Worcester, where residents and agencies alike are seeking to empower immigrants, refugees and asylees who have fallen through the cracks.

“I just want to work and support my two kids,” Germaine, a single mother who lost her husband during war in Central African Republic, recently told me. As Germaine and I spoke, I extolled the benefits of her kids growing up in Massachusetts, where renowned medical centers, robust welfare programs and excellent educational opportunities create pathways for low-income residents to achieve upward mobility. Two days before and at her employer’s request, Germaine worked a double shift beginning at 11 AM and finishing early the next morning.

Today, she and I celebrated the arrival of her first paycheck. Despite relying on federal support of $1100 upon arrival, refugees like Germaine are not expecting a hand out. At RIAC Worcester we operate three federal programs, “Resettlement and Placement” (R&P), Match Grant and “Preferred Communities” (P.C.), all of which aim to promote refugees’ self-sufficiency.

“I want to work and help to pay rent,” another client, Kara, recently told me. She has been receiving unemployment benefits after being laid off from her housekeeping job. She suffers from a chronic blood condition as well as blindness in her left eye, but still strives to support her family.

During my time at RIAC, I have come to know refugees who, despite their hardships, find within themselves resiliency – a fighting spirit that allowed them to leave behind homes owned by families for generations; flee violence and go to overcrowded and segregated camps resembling prisons more than temporary housing; and find refuge in distant cities like Worcester, where they must meet the daily challenge of learning a foreign language, culture and lifestyle. Like the ancestors of nearly all Americans, refugees press forward because it is the only way to realize the dream of a better life.


Written by Andrew White, Americorps Member.

The names in this story have been changed to maintain confidentiality.

School Supplies for Refugee Students

As families around Boston prepare their children to return to a new school year, many of our refugee and immigrant families are doing so as well. For some of our students, this will be the first “back to school” experience they’ve had in the United States. As parents know, this can be a stressful and exciting time of year. Students get to pick out new clothes, backpacks, supplies and lunchboxes, all in anticipation of the year to come. For our families, this can be a huge financial burden and they are often not able to provide their children with the essential (and extensive) school supply lists sent by teachers.

RIAC has been extremely fortunate this month in receiving donations from community members in order to assist our students and families in preparing for school. Joshua, who believes that every child should have access to an education, organized a supplies drive in his community. He delivered a donation of 30 backpacks, over 2,000 pencils, more than 100 notebooks, and various other supplies.

This week, many students came into our office to pick out their new backpack, filled with the supplies they would need for the upcoming year. Thank you Joshua, for helping these students start off their year fully prepared to learn, grow and make a difference in the future of our world!

Seeking Volunteer ESL Teacher!

The Refugee and Immigrant Assistance Center (RIAC) is searching for two ESOL Volunteer Teachers! RIAC’s ESOL classes begin in September and are held Tuesday and Thursday evenings at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center (ISBCC) located in Roxbury. We are excited to continue this program which offers free and open English classes to the community. Many classes around Boston have extremely long wait lists and eligibility requirements- posing a challenge for recently arrived refugees who are eager to learn the language in order to become more self sufficient. This is a wonderful opportunity to make a positive impact on the refugee and immigrant communities!

Volunteer ESOL Teacher
Hours: An average of 10 hours per week beginning in late Aug.
• Coordinate program operations at ISBCC.
• Assist with outreach, student intake, assessment and class placement
• Develop and organize curriculum and other teaching materials
• Teach 5 hours per week, Tuesday and Thursday 6:00 – 8:30
• Work closely with the program’s Education/Employment Counselor
• Maintain records and complete reports

Experience teaching adult ESOL. BA minimum. Curriculum development and program management experience helpful. Certification in Best Plus required.

Please send resumes and cover letter to the RIAC general e-mail:

[email protected]

Hello, Bienvenido, Ku Soo Dhawoow

The Refugee & Immigrant Assistance Center,  formerly known as the Somali Women and Children’s Association, was established in 1993. It is a community-based, grassroots organization dedicated to promoting educational and socio-economic development in Massachusetts refugee and immigrant communities.