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World Relief and the Aurora Community

By Katie Kather

World Relief Aurora’s 2011 picnic (photo courtesy of Gail Zieche)

Aurora, Illinois is much like any other American city.

The second biggest city in the state of Illinois, Aurora boasts six school districts, four forest preserves and three museums. As of 2009, the violent crime rate in the city of Aurora was lower than that of Illinois by roughly 22 percent, according to city rating websites.

One piece of information that cannot be found on city websites? Aurora’s bustling refugee community. This vibrant aspect of the city can only be found driving through the streets just west of downtown Aurora. “Overall, refugees are considered a valuable part of the community,” said Gail Zieche, church and volunteer mobilization coordinator for World Relief’s Aurora office.

World Relief is an organization that works side by side with the church to meet needs of vulnerable people in their time of need. The organization provides education, health, child-development, agriculture, micro-enterprise and immigrant services. World Relief has international and local offices that work closely with volunteers to achieve their goals.

Roughly 27 million people are displaced worldwide by conflict and persecution each year. 70,000 displaced persons are resettled in the United States each year, according to World Relief’s website.

World Relief is an affiliate of one of 10 refugee resettlement agencies in the United States. As of 2011, they helped resettle 170 families in the Aurora community. “We have been in Aurora for 10 years,” said Zieche, adding that most of the refugees she has worked with have become valuable members of the community. “They have bought houses, continued their education and moved up in the workplace.”

According to Zieche, refugees are grateful and eager to be part of this culture. This has helped them earn a positive reputation among landlords and employers. “Refugees have a reputation for being hard workers,” said Zieche. “They are eager to work because that piece of their dignity has been taken away. We help them learn about the work culture so they can be good employees.”

However, being a refugee is not easy. Aurora’s “Beacon News” highlighted some of the struggles refugee children faced in an article published in early 2011. Most refugees resettled in Aurora do not know English or the intricacies of the healthcare system. Even a trip to the grocery store can be daunting. Because of their financial constraints, refugees often live in areas that are considered unsafe.

The language barrier is the biggest obstacle that refugees face. “I have worked closely with Bhutanese, Burmese and Iraqi refugees and each of those people groups have various levels of English language. For a refugee to have limited English acquisition can mean that it takes a bit longer to not only learn the language, but find work, as well as communicate with key people like school staff on a daily basis.  This can be a challenge that makes integration into their new community tiring and burdensome,” said Casey Barrette, youth services coordinator for World Relief.

That is where World Relief Aurora relies on volunteers. “World Relief staff and volunteers work very hard to help refugees adjust to this culture so they can be self-sustaining, successful and thrive rather than just survive,” said Zieche.

World Relief relies heavily on a volunteer position they created called friendship partner. World Relief sets the volunteer up with a refugee they think will be a good fit. The friendship partner is expected to spend a minimum of one hour a week with the refugee helping them with English, to understand their bills, grocery shop or any need the refugee might have.

“I love introducing volunteers to refugees and hearing how those relationships develop as time goes on. I love hearing not just how the friendship partner is helping the refugee but how the refugee is helping them. The relationship is so important. The fact that somebody keeps coming back to visit them even if they don’t speak English that well has such a big impact on them because they are a stranger here,” said Zieche.

Zieche shared a story about a friendship partner that invited their Bhutanese family over for Thanksgiving dinner. “Though the Bhutanese dad was older and knew very little English, through his daughters he told the American couple that he was so thankful for them and that he considered them his children,” said Zieche, tears welling up in her eyes.

World Relief also offers volunteer opportunities for those who may not have a lot of free time. The Aurora office accepts donations for winter clothing and accessories, cars and car seats. They ask to be contacted first to ensure they have room to store the items until they have a family who can receive the donations.

World Relief also has a program that provides “good neighbor kits” which include laundry baskets, toolkits, alarm clock radios, small trash baskets, books of stamps and blankets.

As part of a campus-wide volunteering event through the Wackerlin Center, AU students volunteered with World Relief Saturday, Dec. 3 cleaning three church vans used by the organization to pick individuals up from the airport, transport people to job training/interviews and various other services for those new to the United States.

“Our job was to wash the inside and out of each vehicle.  While at first this job seemed to not have much value to the World Relief organization, we were informed that being able to pick up individuals in clean vehicles is one of the first steps to helping restore dignity in their lives,” said student volunteer and senior Dana Rikli. “I was able to make a small difference in someone’s life who I do not know.  While our job of cleaning vans may seem inconsequential, the act of volunteering time and energy to help someone you don’t know is a worthy cause.”

As Barrette puts it, “it is the communities that surround refugees that truly impact and affect the transition that they have when first resettling into America.”