By Todd Cohen
CARRBORO, N.C. — Orange County is home to an estimated 1,300 refugees, mainly from Burma and Thailand, and more recently from Syria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, with about 15 new refugees arriving every month.
For those refugees, coping with their new community can be tough.
They typically have fled from horrific conditions ranging from government persecution and civil war to genocide and ethnic cleansing, says Madison Hayes, executive director of Refugee Community Partnership in Carrboro, a nonprofit that works to provide them with support and connect them to information and resources.
Refugees often do not speak English, lack documentation of their previous education or work, are not familiar with U.S. social systems, and are disconnected from community resources, she says.
The result, she says, is “chronic isolation” that typically results in or reinforces persistent poverty, mental-health problems and exclusion from opportunities, particularly access to higher education, jobs, health and human services, health care, and insurance.
The Refugee Community Partnership was founded in 2011 by Asif Khan, then an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who worked at the Human Rights Center, a local nonprofit that served “marginalized communities,” mainly Latinos and refugees in Carrboro and Chapel Hill, Hayes says.
In 2011, the Partnership merged with the Center, and this fall Khan enrolled in medical school at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Operating with an annual budget of $30,000, a half-time executive director, interpreters who work under contract, and over 70 volunteers, the Partnership offers a range of programs for refugee families, students and women.
In its main program, teams of two volunteers each visit 42 families in their homes each week, working collaboratively with the families to find solutions to challenges they identify, such as learning English, finding better housing or navigating the community.
A second program matches about 30 undergraduate students at UNC-Chapel Hill one-on-one with a total of 42 students at Chapel Hill High School and East Chapel Hill High School.
The UNC students serve as academic mentors, helping with tutoring, homework, studying for exams, and charting a path to graduation and college. The students in each high school also meet once a week in a club with volunteer facilitators from the Partnership to practice collective decision-making, critical thinking and self-advocacy.
Through a collaboration with Durham nonprofit Farmer Foodshare, the Partnership is the recipient of fresh local produce donated by farmers and consumers at a “Donation Station” at the Carrboro Farmers’ Market. The Partnership then provides that food to over 130 individual refugees a week.
In the first nine months, it received 8,000 pounds of donated fresh produce for the refugees it serves.
The Partnership also supports two groups of about six women each, with one that meets once a week and the other once a month ind homes of its members on a rotating basis.
The groups talk about issues such as domestic violence and mental health that refugee women often are reluctant to discuss or may not understand, and about how to find services and resources to address those issues, Hayes says.
To help them overcome fear they may have about public or crowded spaces, the Partnership also hosts a community outing every three months for refugee families to destinations such as the Carrboro Farmers’ Market or the UNC-Chapel Hill campus
It hosts about three workshops a year on topics such as the Department of Motor Vehicles, road laws, driving, mental health, college readiness and tax preparation.
It plans within the next year to double — to 100 and 140, respectively — the number of families it serves and the number of volunteers who work with them.
It also plans to make the position of executive director full-time, add a full-time position for a program coordinator, and triple its annual budget.
And it plans within six months to launch a new program to plug refugee entrepreneurs into a collaborative network it has developed among local service providers, businesses, experts, policymakers and other organizations that can help them start new businesses.
“A number of women in our program are housekeepers at UNC, the graveyard shift, and don’t make enough to make ends meet, but back in their home country they were restaurant owners, culinary professionals,” says Hayes, who also works as project director at The Food Mint, a consulting firm in Chapel Hill.
She says the Partnership looks for creative solutions that use existing resources to address challenges refugees face.
While the languages of refugees from Burma and Thailand are oral, for example, local agencies often promote their services by posting printed flyers in community locations. So the Partnership works with over 10 agencies to make voice recordings in the language of refugees of the information on those flyers, and then plays the recordings for the families it visits.
“Our work is not to duplicate what already exists,” Hayes says, “but to connect refugees with resources in ways that are culturally sensitive and socially strengthening.”