Refugee resettlement program creates 'new normal' for Red Cross chapter

In 2010, the American Red Cross in South Bend, Ind., became an affiliate of CWS as a refugee resettlement agency. The local agency is now more multicultural than ever before and has attracted new refugee volunteers who can cross-train with disaster response roles.

John Pinter (red sweater) welcomes a newly arrived refugee family at South Bend Airport.  Photo: Marlene Nowak

By John Pinter

The American Red Cross in South Bend, Ind., was first chartered as a chapter in 1917. In the 95 years since its start, the organization has responded to thousands of small and major disasters, helped countless service men and women to get home on emergency leave when the situation warranted, and provided many with lifesaving skills and training. Red Cross, at its core, is a volunteer-driven organization, and has at its core the twin responsibilities of community preparedness and emergency response.

Starting in 2010, we became an affiliate of Church World Service as a refugee resettlement agency. The Chapter had started to work with refugees and asylees in 2007, following the closure of the area’s sole refugee organization in late 2006. The South Bend area had a strong tradition of refugee and asylee support, dating back to the post-World War II era, and suddenly the supporting organization had ended its services. The volunteers and co-sponsors, who were still deeply involved with refugee families, asked the Red Cross to consider taking them on as volunteers, as well as to assist with families that were still arriving or not well integrated.

Without really knowing what we had gotten ourselves into, the Red Cross was learning the process of resettlement, both the physical parts (finding housing, welcoming families, assisting with adjustment) and the technical parts. Red Cross had already established a large volunteer corps, had many relationships with the local faith communities, and has always had a role in emergency housing, health care, and other community services that could be tasked to assist arriving refugees. We expanded on the good working relationships we had with many in the community, and this made the transition a logical one when the decision was jointly made by the American Red Cross and CWS staff to take the next ‘step’ to resettlement affiliation.

The biggest culture shift for the organization was not what one might expect, however. Though learning about new cultures and training volunteers in sensitivity to working with folks across national lines was mostly new to Red Cross, the major change involved the length and depth of the relationships that must be formed between the arriving clients (the refugee families) and the organization.

Red Cross is far more used to an emergency response, sort of a “swoop in and save the day, solve the crisis, and then back to normal” (although that’s not as easy as it may sound!), and now we are dealing with a much longer-term involvement in helping get the clients to a “new normal” that would assist them in becoming new Americans. Instead of handling only emergency needs from a fire, we are now handling many of the needs the refugee typically has before he or she can become independent residents in the U.S., such as skills in navigating the health care system, learning a new language, adjusting to new foods, and getting a job.

Though the commitment of time is somewhat limited to the official resettlement period, usually three months, the clients who first settled in South Bend in 2010 are still regular visitors, and many are a part of the team; they welcome new refugees, assure them of the good will of the Red Cross staff and volunteers, make recommendations on jobs, and teach language.

It would be nice to state that this transition has been easy, but the truth is that there was skepticism and a period of adjustment. Some of the longer-term volunteers did not want to get involved, and others needed to take small steps before finding themselves more accepting of this new role for the organization. However, the benefits have vastly outweighed these concerns. The organization is more multicultural than ever before, has attracted many new refugee volunteers who can cross-train with disaster response roles, and the program is developing a high level of awareness and acceptance in the local community.

Though this seems all very natural now, it was not something that fit into the thinking of deciding to extend CWS affiliation to South Bend. It has been an unexpected highlight of the involvement, and one that our organization is grateful for in many ways. The Red Cross is far more closely tied to the local faith-based communities and can speak with knowledge to many cultural groups (the local Iraqi and Rwandan communities, for example) that had little reason to know about the Red Cross before. Most important, the program helps to tie the international mission of the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement, which is strongly involved with the protection of refugees and non-combatants in conflicts, to a local involvement, which is very rare in Red Cross.

John Pinter is Executive Director of the American Red Cross St. Joseph’s County Chapter, South Bend, Ind.


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