“I want refugees and immigrants to be welcomed—that’s the impact that I want to have here in America. Everybody is welcomed.”
Siraji Hassan came to the United States as a refugee. The 21-year-old knows the difficulties of adjusting to an entirely new country. Born in Kenya and resettled in the Seattle area, Hassan, who is a member of the Somali Bantu community, moved to Pittsburgh in 2010. He’s currently serving as an AmeriCorps Member with HIAS partner JFCS Pittsburgh, supporting the needs of newly arrived refugees.
“I know it’s scary for them, so I have to do everything I can to make refugees feel safe and show them around until they’re comfortable.”
Hassan is one of 10 individuals participating in the Refugee AmeriCorps program, a nationwide effort to bolster the capacity of HIAS’ local resettlement partners.
Now in its third year, the program is a partnership between the Corporation for National and Community Service, the Office of Refugee Resettlement, and HIAS’ national network.
The focus of the program is to recruit, train and manage new volunteers who can provide services to vulnerable refugees. Across the country, the members recruited more than 250 volunteers last year, amounting to over 11,400 hours of service.
“The Refugee AmeriCorps program has increased the capacity of HIAS to better serve new Americans who were rescued by the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program,” said Mark Hetfield, President and CEO of HIAS, when the second year of the program was announced.
The members’ work empowering refugees as they integrate, has a “direct impact” in their ability to “thrive and contribute to their new communities," Hetfield added.
Hassan, who started his one year of service in November, previously founded an organization called United Somali Bantu of Greater Pittsburgh. He now serves as a board member and treasurer for the organization, which aims to create a self-sufficient and unified Somali Bantu community.
He says his experience working with his own community prepared him to help refugees of any nationality access a support system beyond their most immediate needs.
“I want to be a voice for all refugees, not just myself,” he says. “I want to be there for people that are new here and are experiencing loneliness or challenges adapting to the new set of norms.”
Abby Jo Krobot did not come to this country as a refugee, but the 23-year-old Pittsburgh native is now in her second year of serving refugee communities as part of the AmeriCorps program.
“My goal is to help ease the transition to a new life in the United States for my clients through showing my appreciation for who they are and where they come from,” Krobot tells HIAS.org.
She originally got involved in the field because she “wanted to have a positive impact on the local refugee community.”
“I absolutely love communicating with people who speak different languages. The key to pushing past language barriers is an authentic desire to connect, patience, and the ability to be creative on both sides of the discussion.”
Through her openness and willingness to learn, she’s even been “adopted” by one of the clients she has helped serve. Helen, a refugee from Eritrea, was resettled with her four daughters to Springfield, Massachusetts in 2013.
“My family lives far away and so she began to tell everyone that she’s made me her daughter, and her own daughters have welcomed me into their lives to ask for sisterly advice,” Krobot says.
Jenna Magee, who manages the domestic volunteer strategy for HIAS, also oversees member satisfaction and professional development for the AmeriCorps program. For Magee, the heightened level of dedication sustained over a full year allows the members to have a deep impact in their communities.
“Seeing the difference a year can make is truly incredible. Both for our local partners and volunteers who rely on their energy and commitment, and for the refugees who they serve, these young men and women are making America a more welcoming place every day.”