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Volunteer in the United States

Volunteer Work with Refugees in the United States

Tutor English in America

The refugee experience, something that most of us know of from images on TV news, is for many people an all-too-immediate struggle. Millions have been forced to flee their homes because of war, religious or racial persecution, or environmental disaster. Most of them end up in a refugee camp, often in a country that doesn't want them or can't afford to take care of them. A small percentage leave the camp and move to another country to start their lives over again.

Last year the U.S. accepted about 75,000 refugees as legal residents. They come from all over the world: Haiti, Somalia, Ukraine, Cambodia, Cuba. Many often arrive alone, with little more than a change of clothes. The obstacles they face are overwhelming: learning new customs, and languages, an urban lifestyle, new job skills.

Resettlement Agencies

Resettlement agencies, usually nonprofit organizations run on grant money, are dependent on volunteer staff, and at the heart of every agency is ESL and English tutoring.

Amanda Jackson, the volunteer coordinator for the International Refugee Center of Oregon (IRCO) works with about 100 volunteers for 200-250 clients. Volunteers work one 3-hour shift per week, assisting ESL teachers in the classroom or tutoring one-on-one.

Jackson says: There's a desire to really understand diversity, to try to learn about other cultures. I think part of it lies in the fascination over the differences in culture and part of it is the desire to help people who have lost everything they've owned and are starting over in the U.S. It's very rewarding.

"Almost everybody who volunteers here has traveled, lived, or worked abroad, and I think they're able to put themselves in other people's shoes; they know from their own experience how difficult it is even to ask for directions when you don't speak the language."

At IRCO, where if you walk down the hallway past half a dozen classrooms you can hear 15 different languages, it's not hard to feel that one is in another country. But the most exciting part of volunteering, says Ruth Nisley, who came to IRCO after teaching English for two years in China and one year in Lithuania, is feeling the motivation and excitement that the refugees bring with them to class.

"The refugees are just inspiring. They're so dedicated to learning, and I'm always challenged. They've had to give up everything in order to get here, and they bring a high level of inspiration because of that."

International Rescue Committee

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) has resettlement offices in 19 U.S. cities. The San Francisco branch asks its volunteers to work a minimum of two hours a week for four months, assigning each volunteer to a refugee family. Carey says that the intention is for the volunteer and the family members to decide what is needed most.

While most volunteer opportunities with refugees involve tutoring English, many refugee centers need volunteers to help clients learn basic job skills like using a computer or writing a resume. These centers need grantwriters, community liaisons, and volunteer interpreters. The National Coalition for Haitian Rights is seeking volunteer activists to help lobby the government on behalf of their clients.

Arts for New Immigrants

One of IRCO's more creative volunteer opportunities matches artists with artists. Called The Arts for New Immigrants Program, this IRCO program attempts to give refugee artists a door into the local arts scene in Portland. Local artists assist refugee artists in finding studio space, buying materials, and meeting peers-not just American artists but other immigrants from different traditions. Immigrant artists have put on shows and classes in the local area, bringing together Ukrainian embroidery, Bosnian folk music, Eritrean basket-making, and Vietnamese watercolors.

Laura Marcus, the Arts Coordinator, says that immigrant artists face an even more difficult challenge than most refugees: "Many of these artists had to leave everything behind, so the challenge is to get materials and supplies. English is also a real challenge; they have limited resources and limited time."

Volunteer Placement Organizations

Libraries, churches, and city governments usually have lists of local organizations needing volunteers. The following organizations can also help you to find a refugee center in your area

Catholic Volunteer Network

International Organization for Migration, www.iom.int.

International Red Cross, www.icrc.org.

International Rescue Committee. Scroll down to bottom right of page for local contact listings.

National Coalition for Haitian Rights, www.nchr.org. Needs volunteer translators (English/Haitian/French/Spanish) and volunteer activists.

Volunteer Match, www.volunteermatch.org. Search under immigrants, tutoring, refugees.