How My Community Rallied to Help One Refugee Household

I first learned about Shelter in Peace (SIP) when its president, Anna Rossi, came to my church to discuss its work. SIP is a local nonprofit providing transitional housing and rent assistance for immigrants, refugees, and low-income families in Alameda County.

“Imagine, if you will,” she said, “escaping from danger in your native land and arriving in a country where you don’t speak the language well. Now navigate securing a job and home, enrolling your children in school, opening a bank account, getting medical care, navigating transit, and so much more.”

It wasn’t hard for me to imagine. Long ago, my mother had to assist my aunts when they emigrated from China, escaping the horrors of the Sino-Japanese War. They had been living in a small, rural village in third-world conditions.

When they arrived, my mother sought the assistance of a Presbyterian charity, the Ming Quong Home, where my aunts received subsidized transitional housing and donated clothes, took lessons in English and cultural etiquette, learned the skills of modern life, and found assistance enrolling in school and finding jobs. Thanks to Ming Quong’s help, they became contributing members of society with thriving children who are my cousins.

Source: Chinese Historical and Cultural Project

And so I, and other members of my church, the First Congregational Church of Alameda (FCCA), were drawn to SIP’s work of welcoming the stranger and assisting the refugee. What could we do to help?

SIP is a nonprofit whose mission is to provide affordable transitional housing to refugees supported by sponsoring organizations. SIP contracts for residential units in Alameda with, among others, the City of Alameda and St. Joseph Basilica, acting as the master tenant on contracts. Refugees call these places home for their first six months to a year while they enroll children in schools, seek work, develop a credit history, and establish landlord and personal references.

Such history and references are critical to securing longer-term housing and better jobs. SIP stays with the accompanying groups,  is always in the background, checks in to ensure everything goes well, and offers help if and where it is needed.

Source: Shelter in Peace

It Takes a Village

Sponsoring organizations can be any community organization such as a church, service organization, or even a group of committed friends willing to guarantee that the rent is paid and “accompany” the refugees for six months to a year in acclimating to life in America.

Volunteers from our church and Never Alone in Alameda, composed of First Presbyterian Church of Alameda and Alameda Rotary Club members, joined forces. Shelter in Peace matched us with two families referred to them by Oakland Unified School District’s McKinney-Vento organization, an educational assistance program for homeless children and youth.

Stella from Central America and Isabella from Mexico (not their real names) each have two minor children and met in a Salvation Army shelter in Oakland. They combined into one household to share home and childcare expenses and chores.

Many Hands Make Light Work

Isabella has a small regular income, and volunteers from the McKinney-Vento program started a GoFundMe appeal for Stella. Thanks to these resources, SIP estimated they could afford one of their subsidized transitional apartments. The Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, an organization assisting immigrants, co-signed the lease to guarantee their rent further.

Never Alone volunteers agreed to help with medical and dental care, finance, food, transportation, and technology issues. FCCA volunteers agreed to help with education, navigating social services, finding work, and seeking long-term housing. At my first meeting, we puzzled over where to begin. No one from our church had done something like this before.

However, as we talked, the breakdown of tasks became clear. With a background in education, Teri helped by referring Stella and Isabella to English as a Second Language classes. Dories agreed to help with Spanish translation. Kristi gathered school clothes, outgrown by her and her friends’ children, to pass on. Her teenage daughter offered to babysit, and a younger daughter said she looked forward to meeting Isabella and Stella’s children so they would have their first friend in town.

Not long ago, I had helped my young adult children find their first jobs, so I offered to help with crafting resumes, searching databases for suitable work, and asking around for one-off jobs such as babysitting, where they could earn some quick cash. Stella has a degree in preschool childcare from her home country, and both have done cleaning and childcare work. I also took up a small collection at church to buy gift cards so they could choose back-to-school clothing to supplement clothes they received as donations.

Carolyn and Teri became our coordinators, and Deborah agreed to help find long-term housing. Rossi warned that would be the most challenging task, as it is for anyone looking to settle in the Bay Area. “It’s usually quite doable to help clients find a job. It might not be a job you or I would want, but if they’re willing to clean hotel rooms or wash dishes or something similar, there’s usually something available. Housing is the hard part, and that’s why  I founded Shelter in Peace – so there would be a place to start.”

Health Challenges

At my first meeting with Isabella and Stella, I asked what sort of work they would like to seek. At first, they answered, “Anything! Anything we can do, we will do.” However, as I delved into their abilities and limitations, health issues related to long-term malnutrition and a poorly treated chronic condition came to light.

They were getting some help, but Dories, a nutritional therapy practitioner, knew she could help further, and the need was urgent to ensure Isabella’s continued ability to work. She resolved to perform a more detailed evaluation immediately after our discussion.

The Dream

I collected enough information to make resumes, then concluded by asking, “What is your dream? What do you hope for?”

Stella became animated. “We dream of owning a catering business where we could work together. We think of starting by cooking in our home and delivering lunches to workers.”

We were taken aback. We were so focused on Stella and Isabella’s survival that we hadn’t considered who they wanted to become.

However, we were soon animated as well, for it is inspiring to hear someone’s dream. Carolyn suggested connecting them to the Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center, which provides training and resources for women to start small businesses. Through some inquiry, she found that the business they were describing, where a food preparation and delivery service is owned and operated by a resident in a private home, is called a Microenterprise Home Kitchen Operation, for which the County offers permits.

Dories suggested they might find a good market for such a business in Hayward, with its large manufacturing businesses with onsite workers. Lisa added that she had Spanish-speaking friends in Oakland who owned a successful catering business that had started small; she offered to connect them for possible mentorship. Deborah suggested they might prefer to start working through a popular app that connects home cooks with their communities.

Why had we not asked this question from the start? It was a dream for the future, yet the answer got us all thinking creatively and became a guide for which opportunities Stella and Isabella may want to pursue.

Journey of a Thousand Steps

Our journey with Stella and Isabella has just begun. We have committed to accompanying them in their first year while they get on their feet. We hope to light their way as they seek to get past the scramble of survival toward realizing their potential.

And I know we will be enriched by making their acquaintance. I’ve been blessed with education, supportive family, and prosperity, yet poverty is around me, a short drive away, diminishing and depressing all of us. Prosperity without poverty nearby would feel entirely different. That’s something I want to work toward. Supporting local food banks is wonderful and necessary. But making a lasting difference takes committed engagement and seeing each other’s individual humanity.

We don’t pretend to have an answer to the daunting and massive problem of our country’s struggle with migrant flows, but we each feel called to do our small part to ease the burden. We hope that by sharing our friendship, knowledge, and a little of our resources, we can help Stella and Isabella access opportunities, contribute to our community, and pursue their dreams.

A version of this post first appeared in the Alameda Post. You can see it here. I donate half my author proceeds from Books, Inc. sales of my book, The Strength of Water, an Asian American Memoir to Shelter in Peace.

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