Resettled immigrants and refugees often face difficulties finding affordable housing, higher-income jobs and educational opportunities and need additional support from federal, state and local officials to successfully integrate into their new communities.
That was the message last month from the Raleigh Immigrant Community (RIC), a support group of individuals and families from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Central African Republic, and Afghanistan who are now living in the Triangle area. The group met with municipal leaders and U.S. congressional and North Carolina lawmakers at the Legislative Building on Dec. 12, with the hopes of furthering conversations about how newcomers can contribute positively to the state. Staff, social work student interns and volunteers with the UNC Global Transmigration-Refugee Mental Health and Wellness Initiative also attended to support the immigrant community group. (Clinical Assistant Professor Josh Hinson leads the refugee wellness initiative and Laura Garlock, MSW ’15, serves as program coordinator.)
“We feel isolated and unable to build power,” RIC President Felix Iyoko said in the meeting, which was organized and moderated by N.C. House Rep. Grier Martin and his assistant Sylvia Hammons. “(But) if we connect to our social world, we can gain power and then we can mobilize that power to achieve our goal, which is (ensuring) people’s wellness and community development.”
State Rep. Rosa Gill, Wake County Commissioner Matt Calabria and representatives for N.C. Sen. Daniel Blue and U.S. Congressman David Price also attended the meeting, which was the second session RIC members have held with state representatives. Last April, the group shared similar resettlement concerns with Rep. Martin, including the lack of sufficient support and time to learn English before needing to begin work, unrecognized job skills and certifications, low-paying jobs, lack of health insurance, and the lack of an efficient family reunification process to bring additional family members to the United States.
During last month’s meeting, Iyoko and other members, including Secretary Cecile Ngarukiye, and member Mimi Fatuma, echoed those challenges and urged lawmakers to consider ways in which the state can help refugees and immigrants access programs and loans so that they can move out of expensive rental housing and into affordable homes of their own.
Although many resettlement agencies offer families about three months of financial support to help them get on their feet and adjust to their new communities, often the money isn’t enough, RIC members agreed. Complicating matters, many immigrants can’t obtain higher-income jobs because they don’t have a high school diploma, GED, college degree or the necessary training that many U.S. employers expect, Iyoko added.
“Help us secure better-paying jobs, opportunities to work toward better qualifications, and we will make a good impact, have self-sufficiency and we’ll have the opportunity to give back to an … amazing country,” he said.
Elected officials thanked immigrant community members for sharing their frustrations and concerns and encouraged future meetings so that solutions can be approached together.
“Everyone on this stage wants America to be a place where refugees are welcome,” Martin said referring to his fellow lawmakers. “But these words will be empty if we don’t follow up with action that truly gets you (an) education, jobs, and a place to stay. I commend you for organizing yourselves to work together with us to make change happen. Organizing and meeting with elected officials for change is how the United States is supposed to work. Those who do that are exactly the kind of Americans and North Carolinians we need.”
For more information about the RIC, contact: President Felix Iyoko at firstname.lastname@example.org or Refugee Wellness Program Coordinator Laura Garlock at Garlock@live.unc.edu. For more information on Refugee Wellness, visit our website: http://refugeewellness.web.unc.edu/ or contact Program Director Josh Hinson: email@example.com