How You Can Help Refugees in the United States
By RON LIEBER, New York Times, Business Section, Feb 17, 2017
If you had tens of thousands of dollars to spend to help refugees who recently arrived in the United States, you might think it would be easy to give it away to an organization that could assist.
But that hasn’t been the experience of Tom Smith, who with his family and another one hopes to sponsor or somehow support one or more refugee families. He called some agencies he read about in newspaper articles but struggled to find the right person to talk to. On one occasion, he did not even get a return phone call.
Anyone else considering the same sort of outreach is likely to leave messages at organizations where the workers feel as if they are under siege. Thanks to President Trump’s executive orders to cut the number of people who can come to the United States and his attempts to change other rules on the fly, the work and the confusion grow by the hour on some days. Mr. Trump’s announcement on Thursday that he would sign a new order next week restricting travel to the country will create even more uncertainty.
So this week, I gathered as much information as I could for people, like Mr. Smith, who want to help refugees already in the United States. It pairs with a column my colleague Tara Siegel Bernard wrote 14 months ago about how to help refugees around the world.
How the System Works
Mr. Smith, 82, who splits his time between Sarasota, Fla., and northern Michigan, said in an interview this week that he was frustrated and embarrassed that his country was trying to bar people from certain nations, and also deeply sympathetic to the agency workers who are trying to help.
But he, like so many others, isn’t sure how best to help, or how the resettlement process even works.
So here’s a primer.
Once the federal government has screened and cleared refugees, one of nine nonprofit organizations helps process them. Then, those organizations work with a group of more than 300 local and regional agencies and offices that do the direct work of helping settle refugees in.
Donating Money to the Agencies
People like Mr. Smith could donate directly to any or all of the nine organizations, some of which have religious affiliations. Or they could find the one among the more than 300 groups that is closest to them and try to donate there, perhaps by calling and saying, “How can I donate to help the family that lives closest to me?”
But as Mr. Smith discovered, that approach isn’t always easy or practical. Because the part of Mr. Trump’s order that reduces total 2017 refugee admissions to 50,000 from 110,000 still stands, some local agencies may not be working with any refugees this year or may not have any more coming.
So if you want to get money to any of the groups that can make the quickest use of it, the Refugee Council USA has stepped into that redistribution role. It is a membership organization and advocacy group that includes among its members those nine primary nonprofits that first help settle new refugees.
Still determined to donate money locally? You can look up the nearest of those 300-plus agencies in a directory or consult the public spreadsheet that Sloane Davidson, a graduate student and part-time agency employee, has put together. She encourages other agency and nonprofit workers to suggest changes and additions to her via an online form.
Just be patient. Many agencies are extremely busy and have no professional fund-raisers or volunteer coordinators. You may need to be persistent.
Donating Money to Other Organizations
If you can’t find a local organization to support or are looking for other ideas, you might consult the list of members of Refugee Council USA. One of them, the International Refugee Assistance Project, helps line up legal help for those who need it.
Donors who work with local community foundations might ask for advice on which local organizations are working with refugees. United Way staff members, too, may have suggestions.
Channeling Money and Goods to Individuals
The agencies that work with refugees have access to some federal funds and other money to help get them settled, but the money generally doesn’t stretch very far. So some volunteers partner with those agencies to buy supplies (via Amazon registries) for the newly arrived.
In Jersey City, Kara M. Murphy has set up a registry to help others in her community supply items as varied as paper towels, soccer gear and laptops, which can be crucial for those trying to find work. They’ve helped dozens of refugees so far.
DonorsChoose.org, a nonprofit, has set up a list of projects that public school teachers have posted that will help refugees and other immigrants in their classrooms. It encourages other teachers to add more.
Crowdfunding sites like Crowdrise, GoFundMe and Razoo all have scores of projects that individuals and nonprofits have posted, not all of which will involve tax-deductible donations. And a site called Humanwire registers refugees and recruits fund-raising captains, then pairs them up. One of the families it is helping arrived in Connecticut a few weeks ago.
Be a Volunteer
Want to donate your time and talent instead of your money? There is probably more to do than you realize. “You may not think you have specific skills that are helpful, but you do, just because you’ve lived in America for a long time,” Becca Heller, director of the International Refugee Assistance Project, said.
Start by checking out the online course on being a good volunteer offered by the Refugee Center. The work may not be glamorous, and it may be time consuming. New arrivals need help figuring out day-to-day things, like how the Department of Motor Vehicles works and how to open a bank account.
People with specialized skills or resources should let local agencies know. Good landlords are rare and in demand. Others with spare space have registered at Airbnb, and it has housed 176 people so far, including some in Colorado and California.
People with language skills can volunteer as translators. Employers can offer jobs, especially ones in which people learning English can still do the work. And English as a second language tutors are often in demand. Contact your local literacy organization to find a place that can train you.
Even if none of the 300-plus resettlement agencies near you need volunteers, keep in mind that adjusting to a new country and a new language can take years. Ms. Heller suggests trying to figure out where newly arrived refugees tend to come from and then finding the community centers, mutual aid societies or houses of worship that may serve them. “It would be great to see more people volunteering with after-school programs at mosques,” she said.
The Refugee Center has its own online directory of local organizations that may need volunteers.
Be a Host (and a Guest)
“Coming here is very lonely, and having a friend locally who will have you for dinner or you can have, that is a big thing,” Ms. Heller said. “Many people just want to cook a huge meal for you and stuff you full of food.”
She’s been to dozens of such dinners over the years and is now particular about her Iraqi dolma, preferring ones wrapped in eggplant over ones with grape leaves.
Ms. Davidson is building a website called Hello Neighbor that will try to formalize these pairings – a sort of Big Brothers/Big Sisters effort aimed at newly arrived adults. Volunteers will pledge a certain amount of time and can be part of a person’s or family’s welcome team. The site will offer volunteer opportunities, too.
Teenagers Can Help, Too
Some young adults in schools with recently arrived refugees have taken matters into their own hands and invented new ways to help. Peyton Klein, a 15-year-old ninth grader in Pittsburgh, was inspired to act when she saw how a classmate from Syria was struggling to communicate with their teacher.
To try to bridge as many gaps as possible, Peyton started a group called Global Minds to address a range of issues. “The whole world is literally in our backyards at this school,” she said. “We don’t define anyone as a volunteer. They teach us about culture and the world, and the native English speakers help with conversational English and homework.”
Be an Advocate
Nearly everyone I’ve spoken to on the topic is thrilled to have every last dollar and hour of volunteer labor. But they also asked that those who disagree with the cap on refugees make their feelings known to their elected representatives in Washington. The money and time go only so far, they said, if the country bars desperate people from coming in the first place.
The above list is a work in progress, and this article is a living document. Did I miss something important? If so, please get in touch and I’ll add whatever is appropriate in the coming months.