“When we come here, we start from zero.” For people coming from different experiences and refugee communities, zero can mean different things.
For a young refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo or Bhutan who has spent his lifetime in a refugee camp, zero may mean learning to navigate life in a highly industrialized culture for the first time. For an Afghan male who had a high-ranking job as an interpreter for the U.S. military, zero means working an entry-level job in a factory. For an Afghan female who grew up during the Taliban regime, zero means balancing the opportunity to learn to read and write, the expectation of working outside the home, and the tension of navigating a new culture without language skills or the support of extended family. For the Iraqi refugee who was a cardiologist in his country, starting from zero means driving an ambulance. And for a Burmese refugee who was targeted by religious and ethnic persecution, starting from zero means being able to worship freely for the first time.
ReEstablish Richmond is a local nonprofit that empowers refugees to rebuild their networks and achieve self-sufficiency in the United States. In 2010, ReEstablish Richmond founder Patrick Braford noticed a gap in Richmond’s services for refugees. “Government programs support families initially upon entering the U.S., but once they arrived, they often didn’t have the resources or skills they needed,” says Braford.
At ReEstablish Richmond, the first step toward helping refugees rebuild networks is meeting them where they are and building trust. An outreach coordinator with ReEstablish Richmond, Laura Jones visits clients to assess their needs, then connects them to resources that help them navigate systems in the community. “If a client needs support getting a driver’s license, I can enroll him in a transportation program so he can attend learner’s permit preparation classes in his native language and qualify for behind-the-wheel scholarship money and learn to drive,” says Jones.
ReEstablish Richmond’s health and wellness program means clients can participate in activities such as yoga, cultural sharing, and community gardening to connect with one another and live healthier lives, both physically and mentally. Clients can attend community English classes or apply to receive in-home English tutoring through ReEstablish Richmond.
When asked about the impact of the work she does with clients who have come to the United States from around the world, Jones says she is often meeting families who are stuck in survival mode. “They may struggle to see beyond their traumatic past, and they feel overwhelmed by the realities of the present,” says Jones. “The practical nature of our work helps break down barriers of isolation and gives newcomers the power and agency to decide for themselves what they want their future to look like – and what they can do now in order to make it happen.”
According to the founder of ReEstablish Richmond, the power of the organization’s mission of rebuilding networks is that when an initial connection is made, you never know where it will lead.
For example, Braford recently took a Lyft home from a concert and learned that the driver was a refugee from Afghanistan. When Braford mentioned his connection to ReEstablish Richmond, the driver began listing all of the services his family had already received from the organization. “ReEstablish Richmond had helped his wife get her driver’s license and learn how to speak English,” Braford said. “Hearing this man talk about how much ReEstablish Richmond meant to the Afghani community in Richmond made me realize how trusted and respected ReEstablish Richmond has become in the area,” Braford said. “I want everyone to realize how lucky we are to live in a community like Richmond that is so welcoming to refugees.”
Photos: ReEstablish Richmond