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Refugee Support Center serves local families despite COVID-19 pandemic

Shashi Rao, the employee specialist at Carrboro's Refugee Support Center, explains on Monday, Dec. 2, 2019, how the diapers on the shelf all come from donations by community members and are free to be used by any refugees at the center. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Refugee Support Center has added to this donation system and is also donating fresh groceries and gift cards to families in need.

Jotting down a few math equations, Catherine McManus, a UNC graduate student, texts a picture of her writing to a local high school student she tutors through Carrboro-based Refugee Support Center.

During the pandemic, RSC volunteers like McManus continue to assist local refugees in areas including education, healthcare, citizenship, employment and financial literacy.

RSC’s distribution captains deliver items like gift cards, diapers and food donated by community members and organizations such as the University Baptist Church, Vimala’s Curryblossom Café and Maple View Farm to apartment complexes highly populated by refugees.

Director Flicka Bateman said RSC hopes to ease the challenges COVID-19 brings to local refugees.

“The pandemic has a tremendous economic impact on them,” Bateman said. “They mainly work in the service sector, but right now, people aren't going to hotels, people aren't buying food, and people aren't going to restaurants.”

Bateman said it has also become harder for sub-communities of refugees to connect with each other or to reunite with their families overseas.

Not seeing one’s family can be more impactful during the pandemic, said Debbie Horwitz, one of the three founders and directors of PORCH, a grassroots hunger relief organization that continues to distribute food and gift cards to community partners and over 460 families.

“Between you and all the people that you really hug and feel a sense of grounding from, there’s this huge distance,” Horwitz said. “It’s a double impact for people to experience separation from their family, at a time when family provides you grounding.”

Since refugees served by RSC primarily come from Burma, Congo and Syria, the refugees’ situations are also complicated by language barriers, McManus said.

“It has added a complication for all, but especially for the family members who speak better English than the rest of the family, who have to bridge the family’s connection to the outside world,” she said.

She said language barriers can cause additional anxiety during the pandemic. 

“If I look at the news in a language that I couldn't understand, how would I know what's going on around me, and how do I figure out my place?” she said. “So, I think that's where the RSC comes in and communicates important information.”

Despite the difficulties faced by local refugee communities, Horwitz said their bond with RSC allows them to utilize the provided resources.

“During this crisis, there's more need than ever to help people navigate all kinds of government programs,” Horwitz said. “RSC has developed, over the years, a real trust with the immigrant community, so that they can be a trusted resource, especially in a time of crisis.”

Sunny Chew, volunteer coordinator of RSC, said volunteers and refugees feel closely connected.

MaiMai SuiSyn, a refugee who first arrived in the U.S. in 2013 and now works as an interpreter, said volunteers and staff at RSC not only help, but also mingle with the local refugee communities. 

The first sofa in SuiSyn’s house, a cotton blanket and hot soups for when her son doesn’t have an appetite are among the items brought through which RSC staff have shown a kind of care that exists “not just for the sake of caring,” she said.  

Although in-person meetings have become less viable, community members continue to support refugees by donating items like gift cards.

“You just want to help,” Chew said. “You feel so helpless because now you can't donate your time, so you just want to give what you can.”

Horwitz said that RSC is part of a group effort to serve populations experiencing food insecurity during the COVID-19 pandemic, working with charities like PORCH Chapel Hill-Carrboro, which works with Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools and the Inter-Faith Council for Social Service to distribute resources to families.

“We live in a community where we have resources and care for each other, but we're aware that there are some people who still need to be connected to resources at this time,” she said. “That helps us have the motivation and the energy to keep trying to do better.”

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She added that RSC’s work spreads hope among local communities like refugees'.  

“This is one more crisis and traumatic experience that they will have the resilience to make it through, too,” she said. “It is a wonderful thing to have an organization like the Refugee Support Center that helps immigrant families navigate through this crisis.”

@DTHCityState |