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Program Helps Refugees Build Skills for Strong Futures

DES MOINES, Iowa  --  The language barrier is just one of many struggles refugees face when coming to Iowa.

Several groups help refugees settle into the community, and one program helps both young workers and refugees get on the path to a career.

The RefugeeRISE AmeriCorps program is about one year old. It’s run through EMBARC, which stands for Ethnic Minorities of Burma Advocacy and Resource Center. The program has approximately 40 AmeriCorps members reaching out to refugees in seven communities across the state.

The program partners refugee community members with native English speakers to serve refugee communities.

“Help act as a bridge between the refugee communities in Iowa and resources that already exist to help them with job skills and health care knowledge and just generally accessing the resources they need to be self-sufficient and sustainably support themselves and their families,” said Meghan Smith, the RefugeeRISE AmeriCorps Program Director at EMBARC.

The RefugeeRISE AmeriCorps members set up learning circles focusing on building healthy futures and economic opportunity. RefugeeRISE AmeriCorps Member Leslie Chareunsab said, "We'll go over interviewing skills, such as how to do a proper handshake or have eye contact with the person who is interviewing you, and we go over some questions they might ask you during the interview."

Eh Moo, a RefugeeRISE AmeriCorps member who came to the U.S. from a Thailand refugee camp in 2007, said, "For example, in my community, it's hard for them to apply for jobs, so I help teach them how to fill out applications."

A recent learning circle focused on building a healthy future. Members of Des Moines University’s internal medicine club talked about kidney health. Medical Student Sean McNitt said, "Only 10% of people know they have kidney disease, so it's kind of under the radar, a silent killer."

EMBARC Health Program Coordinator Lian Puii translated everything McNitt said into Burmese.

"We don't have a lot of health information or education back in the country, so sometimes interpreting the word doesn't help. They don't quite understand, so I need to kind of more advocating."

Mikaela Pedersen works on the Healthy Futures team and said the topics are important for refugees.

“Just things the community needs to know, health insurance, things like that. Just things to help them make sense of our very confusing health system and to help them overcome barriers in their own health and the health system.”

The program also helps the AmeriCorps members. They get a living stipend during their nine-month term, along with help paying for their education and a unique experience.

"RefugeeRISE is so unique because we get to work with someone who is culturally different from us, so it's an awesome learning experience. You get to build great relationships," said Pedersen.

Cindy Sein, a RefugeeRISE AmeriCorps member who came to the U.S. in 2008 from a Thailand refugee camp, added, "I want to help my community at the same time. I thought I can learn something while I'm helping my community because when I first start here, I didn't know anything about it either."