For new refugees, resettling in the U.S. is about more than finding a job and a new home; it’s about rebuilding a sense of community and fostering new long-lasting relationships.
While New York and Chicago are large metropolises with vibrant inner-city neighborhoods and comprehensive public transportation systems, Toledo, Ohio is a small city with a spread-out population and limited public transportation, making it hard to get around.
Ghaziyah, a 63-year old Iraqi widow who resettled to the U.S. to reunite with her son just a few months ago, initially struggled to connect with a community in Toledo. The closest refugee assistance organization was more than an hour away by car in Columbus. Settling in was hard for her as five of her six children are in Iraq and she has never worked professionally.
The opening of HIAS partner US Together’s new office this past month, however, is dramatically improving the lives of refugees like Ghaziyah.
HIAS Associate Director, Harvey Paretzky and Program Associate, Leah Bergen recently visited Toledo to observe some of the organization’s innovative community-building initiatives.
“Years ago, the Jewish community social service agencies in Ohio stopped resettling refugees because there was no longer the need to help Jewish refugees,” Bergen says. “But, there were two refugee women from the former Soviet Union who decided that they had to open an agency for all the new refugees who would be coming.”
Shortly after this realization, Nadia Kasvin and Tatyana Mindlina founded US Together and opened its first office in Columbus in 2003. The organization initially sustained itself by pioneering an innovative interpretation program. “There just weren’t language resources available in Ohio, especially for in-person interpretation,” Bergen reflects. “They started an interpretation bank where they would charge hospitals for Somali speakers, Nepali speakers, etc.”
The interpreters, who were all refugees, were formally trained by US together and received a reasonable wage. This program provided the organization with the necessary funds to pay administration costs and the refugees with valuable training and employment for secure futures.
Since then, US Together has worked with the community to connect refugees to many valuable programs, including a culturally sensitive daycare center and women-only English language classes that facilitate friendships and help build community.
One of the main factors contributing to the success of US Together is the positive relationships they’ve formed with other organizations and the county. Bergen says, “A commissioners of Lucas County (which includes Toledo) is excited about the arrival of immigrants and refugees from around the world who are taking advantage of the affordable housing and low unemployment rates. He hopes that the influx of people will generate new businesses, invigorate cultural institutions and help revitalize the city.”
All of this is great news for refugees like Ghaziyah, who is finally beginning to call Toledo her home.
Over the next few years, Bergen anticipates that the Toledo office will grow to welcome many more refugees and immigrants of all backgrounds.