CLARIFICATION: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Paw Paw Wei's ethnic group. The story has been updated to reflect the appropriate ethnic group identification. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for this error.
For the roughly 1,200 refugees in Orange County, the past year has been filled with unique challenges.
Refugees in Orange County come from all over the world, including Myanmar, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, El Salvador, Haiti, Iran, Iraq, Laos, Russia and Syria. Existing language and technology barriers exacerbate difficulties these families face with tasks like helping children in online school and applying for unemployment.
Meagan Clawar, program manager for Refugee Community Partnership, said these barriers make it difficult for refugee parents to assist students with their work.
Parents are also often unable to communicate with their children’s teachers to bring up issues or questions.
“They worry that they're not learning English, that they're not being exposed to other cultural norms,” Flicka Bateman, director of the Refugee Support Center in Carrboro, said.
Paw Paw Wei, a Karen refugee and volunteer coordinator for Refugee Community Partnership, said for some families, even logging on to school can be a challenge. If their internet is slow or parents can’t help navigate the technology, some students have issues connecting to school or accessing resources.
Although online school has not been easy for refugee and immigrant communities, Wei said some families have mixed feelings about returning to in-person classes. Since their community as a whole is at high risk for contracting COVID-19, Wei said some parents are hesitant to send their children back to school.
Bateman said the transition to online school has forced some parents to stay home from work or adjust their hours to take care of their children — adding to an unemployment problem that refugee and immigrant families have been disproportionately affected by since the pandemic began.
“A majority of our families lost their jobs at one point during the COVID pandemic over the last year,” Clawar said. “We very quickly realized that that was the top priority that families had and we needed to transition to be able to meet those needs.”
Many refugees work in industries like food service and hotels, which contributes to this trend. In Orange County, many refugees work for Aramark, a company that provides food service at UNC’s dining halls. When students were sent home from campus, many of those workers lost their jobs.
Wei said obtaining unemployment benefits is often difficult for refugees. The required items for benefits — such as proof they were let go — are not always provided to them by employers. For undocumented immigrants, getting unemployment benefits is out of the question.
Wei said even when families are able to go through all the hoops necessary to receive government aid, it doesn’t always cover their total cost of living.
“In some families, it's like, ‘It's great I have unemployment, but that it's not enough for me,” Wei said.
Clawar and Bateman said refugee and immigrant support organizations have adapted to fit the new needs of this population. RCP started Neighborhood Support Circles, which provides much-needed child care so parents can go into work. The program helps students navigate their computers, do schoolwork and communicate with teachers.
Many organizations also assist families by doing tax preparation, administering food and grocery gift cards, helping them apply for unemployment and more.
Orange County has also provided assistance through grants, rent relief, translators and mask donations.
“I feel really, really lucky that we've been able to do as much as we have,” Bateman said. “Our staff and volunteers have been so resourceful and flexible in the way that we provide services.”
Bateman said her optimism comes from watching refugee families constantly navigate new challenges. She said for many of them, COVID-19 is nothing compared to what they have already experienced.
“It’s just such a resilient, determined population,” Bateman said.
Wei said one of the most important things Orange County could do is recognize the refugee and immigrant population and speak up for them — especially in light of recent unrest in Myanmar, where many Orange County immigrants are from.
“We want to feel welcome," Wei said. "We want to be part of the community."
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