Written by Amy Andrews
A huge hurdle for families embarking on their new lives in Charlotte is simply not knowing how to navigate the ins and outs of daily life. Buying groceries, enrolling children in school or figuring out how to read bills are all monumental tasks. Refugee Support Services was born out of the need to directly help families facing these and other challenges, providing them with support and connection to promote self-sufficiency and ultimately enrich the Charlotte community.
According to Executive Director Rachel Humphries, “We are very centered on bottom-up programming. We tried a top-down approach and it just didn’t resonate with our families.”
Based directly on these needs, Refugee Support Services focuses on five main areas:
Walk-Up Help Center
Twice a week, Refugee Support Services holds an open forum for refugees to get help with specific issues they may be facing, whether reading their mail, navigating a traffic ticket or understanding larger issues with employment, health or legal questions. Family literacy opportunities are also available as well as skill and community-building classes and events.
Refugee Support Services also partners with community experts such as the Charlotte Center for Legal Advocacy to assist with tax issues and the Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools International Department to assist with school-related questions.
Many people assume that what refugee families need most when they arrive in Charlotte are material items. In fact, what families often need the most is a friend – someone to ease all of the newness they are feeling and connect them to their new home in Charlotte. This is where Fruitful Friends comes in. Families who would like to be a part of the program are taken through an orientation process and then paired with a family that they commit to meeting with on a regular basis. The goal is to bond individual to individual and family to family for at least two hours a week for a year.
The Fruitful Friends program encourages families to bond through a shared connection to Charlotte by visiting local parks, going to look out of the windows of skyscrapers downtown or attending a Knights game. This program has grown exponentially through word of mouth and currently serves about 125 families as they make their new home in Charlotte.
Education is a huge part of the work that Refugee Support Services undertakes. Refugee Support Services will send a representative to any civic or church group to share the story of who our refugees are, where they are coming from and how they can help. About 200 people are reached each month in this manner. Refugee Support Services also educates the staff of various Charlotte organizations such as the public library, CMS firefighters and the Charlotte Department of Social Services, sharing information and knowledge they’ve gained in over 13 years of doing this work.
Refugee Support Services also works to educate refugee families, many of whom are unsure of people in uniform as they may have been persecuted by government organizations. Trust is built through programs such as smoke detector and fire safety where firefighters and police show families how to create a safe home.
Taste of Home
One of the things that refugees miss the most are the tastes of their homeland. To reconnect them with things familiar, Refugee Support Services partners with farm and food distribution warehouses to identify items that will not make it to their store shelves. This fresh food is then shared with refugee families – at a rate of about 1,000 pounds of food a week. Local fish farms and hunters also contribute to this program with fresh fish and game.
Love & Learn - Early Childhood and Family Education
Early Childhood Education is a cornerstone of Refugee Support Services programming. Three days a week for four hours, preschool aged children are nurtured and engaged in activities that reinforces a literary theme of the month, such as shapes, animals or my body.
Family education including Bright Beginnings school registration support, voter preparation clinics and job hiring fares are also programs in high demand. In addition, education is incorporated into several parties that are held each year, such as the summer kick-off event where first aid kits and summer enrichment activities (including books, flashcards, sidewalk chalk and bubbles) are distributed.
Refugee Support Services runs all of these programs with a very limited staff and budget. They are always looking for support and donations. Here’s how you can help:
Refugee Support Services is currently seeking school uniforms and backpacks and their contents for distribution at their Back to School event in August. They could also use a few adult bicycles. In addition, if you have household furniture to part with, you can send an e-mail and the items will be posted to the Refugee Support Services Google page.
If you’d like to volunteer with Refugee Support Services, Love & Learn Early Childhood Support is a great way to work directly with the children. Please note volunteers are requested to commit to one day a week for purposes of continuity. Fruitful Friends families are always welcome and orientation for that program is on an on-going basis, with a request of a one-year commitment.Monetary donations are gratefully appreciated at any level. Just $30 will buy an Oxford Picture Dictionary in a target language to help refugee families learn English and communicate with others and funds are always needed for operational expenses to keep the doors open.