It all started with an idea, Albert Einstein’s idea.
As a German refugee, Einstein came to America to escape the tyrant Adolf Hitler. Einstein used his influence and money to help others escape from Germany.
Thanks to Einstein an American branch of an already existing European relief agency was founded in 1933. This branch later grew to become the International Rescue Committee.
The IRC is a nonprofit organization that helps refugees around the world rebuild their lives. Their local offices are located in downtown Salt Lake City, with other offices spread across the U.S. from New York to Los Angeles.
Refugees are people who had to flee their homelands because their lives were in danger. They cannot return to their homes so they need new ones, and that is where the IRC comes in.
“The U.S. is by far the largest humanitarian provider,” said Patrick Poulin, resettlement director for the IRC. “In Salt Lake City we receive between four and five hundred refugees a year.”
This year, its 75th anniversary, the Salt Lake IRC is increasing its ability to help with the beginning of the extended case management program. This will lengthen the time IRC has to help refugees from six months to 24 months.
The program is starting small out of necessity, according to Stacey Shaw, the caseworker who was hired at the beginning of 2008 to develop the new extended program. Of the seven caseworkers employed at the IRC, Shaw is the only one currently handling cases in the new program.
Eventually the IRC would like to give extended care to all of the refugee families it helps, but without state funding it will not happen.
“It is a matter for the state, if they decide to do it or not,” Shaw said.
Right now the 26 cases Shaw handles are the only ones in the 24-month program due to lack of funding. In fact, the only reason the program exists at all is because of a private grant made to the IRC.
It takes five years before refugees can become U.S. citizens. Before this year the IRC could only help them during the first six months, just enough time to get families on their feet by setting them up in a place to live, and providing them with the funding to feed and clothe themselves.
Currently the IRC’s new program can only accommodate the families that will benefit most from the extended care. These families are usually chosen because of mental or physical health issues.
Casemanagers pick refugee families up from the airport, help sign the lease on their home and help find them jobs. They also provide refugees with transportation to and from doctor’s appointments for health checks.
Many of these refugees have a difficult time understanding and speaking English. One of the IRC’s roles is to provide caseworkers and volunteers to help them break through the language barrier.
“Some people need a ton more dental or doctor appointments,” Shaw said. “We are here as a safety net to make sure they don’t fall through the cracks.”
The IRC also helps refugees get health insurance and register their children in school. It also teaches them skills some people take for granted, such as using public transportation, budgeting their income and sorting important mail.
Sometimes refugees will get confused by a piece of mail, Shaw said. It could be anything from an important bank statement to a doctor’s bill.
“We can do these little kinds of prevention before it becomes something big,” Shaw said.
Usually after six months the IRC hands off care of refugee families to the Asian Association of Utah where they continue to receive assistance.
“It is not necessarily a seamless switch,” said Poulin of the IRC. What happens when it comes time to renew the lease, or if a refugee loses a job and needs help to find a new one?
The Asian Association, like the IRC, is a nonprofit organization and helps refugees in any way it can. However, switching agencies during the refugee’s adjustment period can be difficult because they have to get used to a new agency.
“Six months is not enough time to become self-sufficient,” said Gayane Manukyan, a volunteer coordinator for the Asian Association. Refugees tend to get lost when switching caseworkers and agencies. “If you stay with the same family from the first day it is easier.”
The ultimate goal of the IRC is to empower refugees to support themselves. Shaw and the extended case program are a means to reaching that goal.
“Since we’ve been working with the families, we feel we have a unique opportunity to continue helping,” she said.
By taking care of little problems refugees have now, their transition into life in America will be made easier, Shaw said. “Having a contact like me can prevent a crisis from happening.”