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September 17, 2012 | Volume 87, Number 23


Roanoke welcomes and helps new refugee

Welcoming the stranger is something Commonwealth Catholic Charities has done well for more than 35 years.

In Roanoke, a community with a reputation for opening its arms to large refugee families, newcomers now can find an added sense of warmth and ease from their anxieties in the bright, spacious rooms where they come for their first lessons in the culture and language of their new country.

Roanoke CCC’s refugee resettlement program moved its education component into a new space in June. The ongoing newcomers class and English as a Second Language (ESL) classes were relocated to the newly-acquired house two doors down on Campbell Avenue. Besides improving the environment for the education program, the move frees up space for much-needed storage in the other buildings on the property that has long been owned by the Richmond Diocese.

When the large house and grounds adjacent to the diocesan property became available a year ago, Catholic Charities was eager to purchase it, expanding the campus style site to accommodate a variety of social services including RAM House day shelter and Madonna House, as well as CCC’s St. Francis food pantry and the refugee resettlement offices.

After the staff moved into the house last spring, volunteers broke ground in its backyard for a community garden that’s now flourishing. The house itself was in good condition and only needed minor repairs, cleaning and a little paint before opening its doors.

On a recent weekday morning, sunlight streamed through large windows into the front room where volunteer Diane Story was teaching newly arrived refugees how to read an electric bill. Only a few days earlier her “students” had landed in Roanoke from Nepal, Somalia and Iraq.

Their common language was broken English.

While Ms. Story guided them through the exercise, members of the class also talked about their respective journeys to the U.S. Some claimed six or seven stops before arriving at the Roanoke airport. Most had lived previously for months or years in refugee camps.

“The country is different, work here is different,” said Danoder, a refugee from Nepal. “There is a different way to pay money and we learn how to pay the bus ride.”

His classmate Abdi, from Somalia, added, “We learn the health system and can have education — we get a lot of peace here.”

Indeed, their initial cultural orientation includes customs, hygiene practices, social resources, how to negotiate the local transportation system, accessing health care and understanding laws and legal documents.

Amar Bhattarai, Roanoke CCC resettlement coordinator, noted that the CCC offices in Hampton and Richmond have similar programs.

At the first newcomer class in Roanoke each month, ESL staff assistant Stacy Wright takes the new arrivals on a bus ride around the city. She always includes a stop at a supermarket where they explore various products and foods and learn American-style shopping. By the end of that class, participants will know how to get where they need to be on the bus.

“It’s also a great opportunity to get the community involved in welcoming them,” Ms. Wright pointed out. “Sometimes other people on the bus or in the store will ask where they are from or they’ll say, ‘Welcome to the United States.’

“They ask them questions, and you can see that this chance meeting will change the way they look at immigrants from now on.”

Martha Gilchrist, education coordinator for the resettlement program, estimated there are 12-15 people in the newcomers class every month. Refugees also attend daily ESL classes. There are both basic and advanced English classes. Staff and volunteers interact during breaks as well as before and after class.

“A lot of the students show up about 45 minutes before class and it is great to see them sitting on the veranda together,” Ms. Gilchrist said.

Local social services help support refugees through the federal Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program which includes child care and transportation. For their part, refugees are expected to continue English class at least until they are employed, Ms. Gilchrist explained.

But as some leave the program others come in because there is “a constant influx of new arrivals,” she said, noting that there are about 80 active participants in Roanoke at any given time.

CCC executive director Joanne Nattrass said, “The beauty of this new space is that it gives us permanent classroom space for the resettlement program and the potential to expand the number of classes we can offer.”

“We envision being able to use the additional space for future growth in our program,” Ms. Nattrass added.

With a fundamental goal that the refugees become self-sufficient, Ms. Gilchrist said the program’s main objectives are for them to learn English and become employed and later to obtain citizenship.

“We also encourage them to get a GED (high school equivalent diploma) and make plans for higher education,” she added.

The staff’s efforts are boosted by an active group of volunteers who do everything from greeting them on arrival at the airport, to helping furnish apartments and get them moved in to teaching classes, tutoring or mentoring in homes.

Volunteer coordinator Julie Grey said there is a “core group of about eight volunteers.”

A group from Our Lady of Nazareth Church picks up refugees and brings them to the Campbell Avenue offices for their first newcomers class. Another OLN group hosts a luncheon to celebrate the completion of the basic ESL course.

“These volunteers are providing services for people who have absolutely no options,” said Ms. Wright. “Their dedication is amazing; you can see they care very deeply. They are welcoming the stranger and serving the most vulnerable.”

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