The COVID-19 pandemic has altered the lives of many families in Orange County, and the local refugee community is no exception.
The uncertainty of the times is putting more stress on already difficult lives, said Flicka Bateman, director of the Refugee Support Center. The center is a volunteer-based organization in Carrboro that helps refugees transition to a new life by providing services and resources.
“Economically, they are suffering dramatically,” she said. “At the beginning of the pandemic, when no one could go anywhere, they were cut off from the community that gave them so much support. They worry about how they’re going to feed their kids and pay their rent.”
According to UNC Global, Orange County is home to about 1,200 refugees.
The Refugee Support Center serves approximately 900 refugees, who primarily come from Burma, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Syria. Bateman said many refugees work in industries that have lost business and laid off employees, such as hotels, restaurants and housekeeping.
In response to the debilitating effects of the pandemic on the refugee community, Bateman said the Refugee Support Center has been giving families rent and medical bill assistance, grocery store gift cards, weekly food distributions and monthly diaper distributions.
In terms of virtual opportunities, the center offers weekly tutoring sessions for English as a Second Language and citizenship advisors via video call platforms. Bateman said the Refugee Support Center also helps refugees apply for citizenship and green cards, as well as unemployment benefits and jobs.
She said the center has seen a surge of citizenship applications because of a steep fee increase for applications from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. Starting in October, the fee will increase from $640 to $1,160. Bateman said most refugees were able to get a fee waiver in the past, but that will no longer happen.
“People are rushing to get us to do their applications before the fee waiver goes away,” she said.
Bateman said donating money to the Refugee Support Center, or simply welcoming the refugees and advocating on their behalf, could make a huge difference.
Selina Máté, youth mentorship coordinator at World Relief Durham, a refugee resettlement nonprofit that serves the Triangle area, said the organization's services have had to adapt due to the pandemic.
The organization's Refugee and Immigrant Youth Services department has shifted to virtual tutoring for elementary and high school students and purchased a dozen laptops this past spring for students who did not have access to technology, she said.
“We’ve worked alongside the families, making sure that they are able to access unemployment benefits, Durham Public Schools Foundation food bags and just trying to help the whole person,” Máté said. “We’re making sure they’re doing okay with mental health and making sure they have access to things they formerly would get for free from school.”
Additionally, she said World Relief Durham is providing employment access help for students and adults by helping them fill out job applications and creating resumes, as well as teaching virtual driver’s education classes.
Máté said because of Durham and Chapel Hill’s medical infrastructure, refugees experiencing serious health problems come to World Relief Durham for assistance. The agency works with these refugees on a virtual platform to help navigate the health care system during the pandemic.
Resettled families have also received face masks, other personal protection equipment and proper sanitation training to stay safe during the pandemic, she said.
UNC Refugee Wellness, a project that partners with resettlement agencies to offer mental health services for refugees in Orange, Durham and Wake counties, is also addressing the difficulties of the pandemic for refugees. It is offering personal therapeutic sessions, telephone sessions and support groups through Zoom.
Advaita, a specialization intern at UNC Refugee Wellness who prefers to go by their first name, said there is already a lack of access for mental health services for refugees, and the pandemic has made it even more difficult.
They said the agency’s objective is to help these refugees process emotional turmoil, anxieties and depression, and learn coping skills to help them through trauma.
Advaita said voting, participating in refugee activism and being aware of policies that affect refugees is one of the biggest ways to help.
Bateman emphasized the importance of voting to help refugees, and said the Refugee Support Center is making sure local refugees are able to vote as well by providing voter registration for new citizens and absentee ballots so they can vote by mail.
“What’s best for America is to do the best that we can to support the new immigrants that are coming to this country,” Advaita said, “because they are the future of this country and this world.”
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