Nonprofits Retool to Serve Refugees Struggling During COVID-19 Shutdown

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Refugees are struggling with additional trauma during the COVID-19 lockdown. Some, like the Syrian and Iraqi refugees pictured arriving in Greece in 2015, underwent perilous journeys to reach safety. Ggia / CC BY-SA 4.0

Refugees who arrived in the Bay Area around the time shelter-in-place orders were issued, as well as those who have been here for an extended period, are struggling to stay afloat, organizations who serve them said.

The most recent arrivals are simply trying to establish themselves, whereas others are unaware of services available to them, are being led astray by misinformation on social media or are faced with a rekindling of the trauma they thought they had left behind.

Given the shutdown of many businesses, new arrivals are less likely to find jobs. Without employment, refugees have less access to health insurance and more need for income assistance. Lacking income to buy cars, newly arrived refugees must rely on drastically curtailed bus and rail service to do essential tasks like shop for groceries or get to the hospital. New arrivals without existing community connections can then end up extremely isolated.

Because many refugees are survivors of war and genocide, they’re also suffering residual trauma from those experiences, said Leva Zand, development director of the Center for Empowering Refugees and Immigrants in Oakland. “Many of the community members are coming for support groups, weekly programs,” she said. “They really don’t have anyone else here to have any social interaction with. And now that’s been limited, so isolation is a big factor for our community.”

In addition, the system of refugee resettlement in the United States is based on rapidly finding employment.“You are looking at a substantial pool of individuals who may not be able to pay for rent and their needs even if they were working,” said Blythe Raphael, who heads the refugee services program at Jewish Family and Community Services East Bay. “Those families we’re watching carefully and trying to find assistance.”

Multiple organizations that serve refugees have shifted gears, reorganized and launched new services to ensure they can meet this population’s needs during the global COVID-19 pandemic.

The stay-at-home order was issued just after several families arrived in the area from Aghanistan, forcing Raphael’s East Bay organization to retool for remote work at the same time it was delivering assistance. “As all services were closing to in-person interviews, we had to really review our model in order for us to make the service connections for all of our new arrivals and for our case managers to be able to serve people with essential course services,” Raphael said.

Since most new-arrival families don’t own cars, the organization quickly implemented grocery delivery by volunteers who are willing to shop for refugees. Other groups that serve refugees have launched similar services.

“If you are new to the country, you don’t know about the emergency relief fund or your local food bank,” said Zand, whose Oakland refugee center now delivers essentials to seniors and other refugees without their own modes of transportation.

Many elders are not aware of other resources that are available and don’t have accurate information. Some genocide survivors, for example, believe the coronavirus poses no real threat, Zand said.

“We started translating documents very soon from CDC and Alameda County health department,” she said, referring to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “The challenge with all that misinformation out there on Facebook is you’re bombarded with misinformation in your language and you read it and think: ‘This is on the Internet, it’s probably right.’”

To ensure communities received accurate information, Jewish Family and Community Services East Bay created a public Google document covering the basics about COVID-19 that was translated into 72 languages.

In the weeks leading up to the stay-at-home order, the Center for Empowering Refugees and Immigrants informed members about the precautionary measures they needed to take against COVID-19. Staffers created care packages that included hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies for attendees of support group meetings. The center’s therapists and outreach workers have called more than 160 clients to make sure they are doing well and to check if they have the essentials, said Zand.

The center is also partnering with other East Bay agencies to advocate for rent relief since some clients have lost their jobs. Recent refugees may not have worked enough quarters to qualify for unemployment benefits.

San Francisco Refugee and Immigrant Transitions case managers are reaching out to their refugee and immigrant students on a weekly basis by phone. Staff at partner schools in Oakland that support the organization’s youth programs are also contacting students to check in.

The check-ins are meant to inform and reduce the impact of social isolation for students, Julia Glosemeyer, the group’s associate manager of development and communications, said in an email.

“These check-ins consist of ensuring students’ safety, sharing COVID-19 resources and offering remote one-on-one tutoring,” she said. “They are also assessing family needs to make appropriate referrals to community services and resources.”

The organization is also launching distance learning strategies for language classes. “Students in these classes are getting COVID-19 updates from their teachers on a weekly basis,” she said. “Before the sites were closed, a nurse practitioner visited our classes to inform students about COVID-19 precautions.”

These groups have had to quickly adjust to the shelter-in-place order, and are themselves vulnerable to the economic fallout, so they need as much public support as they can get, said advocates. “Small organizations are going to suffer a lot from this economic crash that’s going to happen,” said Zand.