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Austin Refugee Newsletter - August 2015

Proud to be an American: World Refugee Day in Review
After attending June's World Refugee Day event at the Bullock Museum, Maggie Wagner, iACT's AmeriCorps VISTA, reflects upon what it means to have American citizenship
Before coming to work with iACT, I had never given much thought to what it means to be an American citizen. But, as I sat in on the naturalization ceremony held during June's World Refugee Day, I could not help but ponder what the significance of such a ceremony must be to people not born into US citizenship. 

Personally, I would think pledging allegiance to a new country would be a bitter-sweet experience. Imagine fleeing oppression in the place where you were born and raised, only to come to a completely new country with new customs, traditions, and, most difficult of all, a new language. Such an experience would have me longing for the home I had left behind. Even so, the refugees turned citizens I met at World Refugee Day were all smiles as they received their citizenship certificates from the judge presiding over the ceremony. Continue Reading 

Refugee Services of Texas Expands Immigration Services

Refugee Services of Texas is pleased to announce the expansion of immigration services. Roll out begins in the Dallas and Austin offices this fall. The revised scope of services will include assistance to Cuban migrants seeking work permits and adjustments of status. Services will also be offered to the larger immigrant community seeking immigration consultations, assistance with Temporary Protected Status (TPS), Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), and family reunification.  Immigration Attorney Emma Wells will be lead counsel at the Austin office. Long time RST employee and former immigration specialist, Trish Niswander, has taken a Grants Administration roll within the agency which will oversee the expansion of immigration services across the network.

The Unlucky Ones

iACT's Refugee Program Director, Lubna Zeidan, contemplates the challenges refugee youths face

Refugees are on my mind daily and have been since I started work at Interfaith Action of Central Texas in 2002. Back then iACT was called AAIM and I came to it looking for a job, not necessarily a cause. The past 13 years have fused those two things so that I can no longer separate them.

There are over 14 million refugees and displaced people in the world, less than one percent of them are the lucky ones who will be resettled permanently in a new country – usually about 70,000 annually in the US.

iACT  provides year round English classes to all newly resettled adult refugees. In summer we add a 7-week program for refugee school-aged  kids called iLearn. The 2015 iLearn session brought us 103 young refugees, 6- 18, from 8 different countries and ended with graduation on August 6th.  We must sincerely thank Central Presbyterian Church which houses our program for graciously welcoming over 200 people a day during some of the summer weeks.
After the summer program we follow up the next school year by checking on how the kids do in school and try to connect them with after school programs, tutoring,  and with our own homework help site. This is only possible with collaboration with the Refugee Family Support Specialist at AISD. This year Peggy Robinson, who has been in that job for 6 years and has helped us so much year round, is retiring. We are feeling her loss but also looking forward to working with her replacement.
Refugee children in the Austin school district have very serious problems. They have all had interrupted and inadequate schooling and very limited exposure to English. Since they are generally assigned class levels according to their age, they may be taking 9th grade social studies and algebra when they can’t even read at a first grade level.
The mandatory standardized tests make it highly improbable for a refugee arriving in the US as a teen to actually graduate from high school. The graduation rates of refugees in the Austin school district seem abysmal though no official statistics have been made. Unofficially, they seem to stand somewhere between 20 and 25%.
In addition to the academic issues, refugees in public school have other problems: cultural barriers, the past traumatic experiences, the sense of isolation and alienation common to displaced teens, as well as a belief that their parents are unable to help or support them. They are also the poorest of the poor in a peer group culture that idolizes possessions.

This year iACT for Refugees decided to do more and we are adding a pilot mentoring program. We have selected 10 kids in high school and we will find mentors for them who will help with their academics as well as with cultural and social issues that the whole family may face.
So we are looking for caring individuals over 18 (though a teen and a parent can mentor together) and we will try to secure two mentors for each refugee teen. The first mentorship training is at iACT office on August 20th, 2015, at 6 pm. For more details contact

Recently while visiting a summer camp two exuberant young adults came barreling toward me. I didn’t recognize them at first, but they remembered being in our summer youth program. One is in her second year of college, her brother was starting his first year at ACC – they were counselors at the camp. So there are kids who will find their way – they will do well, graduate, may even go on to college and success. But many won’t.
As I looked into the eyes of a hopeful teen from the Congo this summer, I saw her excitement about starting school and her happiness at being able to communicate that in English. So I am hopeful – but I do worry that without the daily support young refugees need, they will fall into a cycle of poverty that nobody deserves. Much less people who have already endured horrors we, the lucky ones, have only seen in movies. 

The Refugee Situation in 2015
The New York Times recently published a broad summary of the current refugee situation around the world, including glances at the movement of desperate African migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea into Europe as well as the catastrophic displacement of Syrians in the Middle East.

The article notes there are approximately 60 million displaced people in 2015, nearly a quarter of whom fled their homes only last year. There are over 11 million displaced Syrians alone, most of whom remain within the country’s borders, while scores of others have sought refuge in neighboring countries, especially Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq.

Violent conflicts in Somalia, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and South Sudan have contributed to a humanitarian crisis that has left about 15 million people displaced in sub-Saharan Africa.

The article concludes by examining the numbers of refugees who have been resettled in various western countries, including the United States.
The Austin Refugee Roundtable enhances collaboration between agencies, community groups and individuals who serve refugees, with the aim of making Austin a welcoming and supportive resettlement community.

Austin Refugee Roundtable Members
Amala Foundation
AISD Refugee Family Support Office 
Caritas of Austin
Center for Survivors of Torture

City of Austin Refugee Health Screening Clinic
Interfaith Action of Central Texas
Multicultural Refugee Coalition
Refugee Services of Texas
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