When Mike Miller looks back on his early work with refugees, a harrowing story comes to mind—a family in a rat-infested apartment that had truly no idea what to do about it, or whom to call.
“I could see one scurrying across the floor,” says Miller, who has worked with the refugee community in Rochester for over a decade. “We got the city to come in and inspect the place and condemn it. Then we could go to DHS and since it was condemned, they provided emergency housing.”
Miller is one of many dedicated, long-term volunteers at Rochester Refugee Resettlement Services. RRRS is among several other organizations that are receiving or preparing to receive an influx of new families from Afghanistan and elsewhere over the coming months. Volunteers and sponsors for families are essential to meeting needs of refugees.
“They build relationships, and they find that having great value because people really appreciate each other. When you get to know somebody it’s like a part of your family, so you just don’t want to abandon them,” RRRS founder and CEO Mike Coniff says.
Coniff started the Lexington Avenue nonprofit to “fill in the gaps,” with a focus on safe housing as refugees transition beyond their first weeks and months in the country. It began in 2012 as an offshoot of Mary’s Place Refugee Outreach Center, which assisted with immediate needs.
“We’re interested in self-sufficiency,” Coniff says. “People survive. So, we were more focused on … whatever tools people needed to become self-sufficient. We focused on housing. It provides us with a solid base (and) was needed in the neighborhood. It enabled us to have a better connection with a family because now we’re dealing with them at many different levels.”
That connection is at the core of the organization, and a driving force for some of its long-standing volunteers. These individuals represent a range of backgrounds, and each contributes in different ways. Miller first connected with the refugee community through his work at an area nonprofit, and then again with a social action committee at Temple Beth El. Over the years he has sponsored families, built a health services database, and taught basic computer skills.
Judy Bennett met Coniff through her Rotary chapter and has also sponsored families, worked one-on-one with young refugees, and helps in the agency’s office. Jennifer Leigh, a professor at Nazareth College, has partnered with the agency for over eight years as she guides her graduate and undergraduate students through service-learning projects designed to fill specific needs.
While each person approaches the work through the lens of their own skills, the building of relationships and connections is what keeps them engaged with the agency and its clients.
“I think about that with our students, that there’s like an intergenerational contract across the (class) sections and years,” says Leigh, “because of the success and thoughtfulness and care in which previous sections stewarded the partnership, that enables us to continue.”
She teaches courses in business ethics among other subjects and works with RRRS to identify specific areas of need. Students then work in teams to address those areas directly. Projects have included the creation of a database to help identify properties that meet the agency’s criteria for housing, and in-person programming at Nazareth College that focuses on the needs of refugee and first-generation students as they consider higher education. The projects allow students to make connections between their own skills and the worlds of business and nonprofit work, navigating real challenges and integrating cultures.
“That’s a key element of what we talk about in business, right? There’s a culture at Naz and there’s a culture at RRRS and then there’s a culture that we created together, through partnering, and that takes consistent and persistent work,” Leigh says.
Bennett had joined the Rotary in Canandaigua when she was working as the director at the American Red Cross there, and when she and her husband retired and relocated to Rochester, they sought out another Rotary chapter. It was there that she met Coniff and began to get involved as a volunteer at RRRS.
“One of the first things Mike was looking for was sponsors for families,” Bennett recalls. “I’m a member of the returned Peace Corps volunteers of Rochester … and I thought maybe this organization could do that, sponsoring the family.”
Family sponsorship involves close, regular interaction between volunteers and clients, and Bennett remained with her first family for almost six years.
“It was taking them to social services, introducing them to doctors, getting their green cards … which is a huge undertaking,” she recalls. “We were doing all of this with no common language.”
Last summer, Bennett attended the high school graduation of a young asylum seeker she had mentored. Miller also shares happy stories. Just last week he spent the day with a family that he’s maintained a connection with. They went to Charlotte, got ice cream, and watched the kids play on the playground.
Bennett’s experience in the Peace Corps left her keenly aware of what it’s like to be in a place without an understanding of either the language or customs.
“Culture shock has got to be just huge for these families and, you know, your heart has to go out to them,” she says.
This empathy and a desire to maintain diverse relationships is what keeps her connected to the refugee community and RRRS’ work.
Leigh reflects on the nation’s history, saying that “welcoming new Americans is just a number one priority for me. Most of us were new Americans, just not necessarily under such extreme circumstances as the refugees.”
For Miller, his Jewish faith is at the root of his continued service.
“We were once strangers in the land of Egypt, right? Welcoming the stranger is a value that we have, and it’s just something I’ve been doing,” he says.
Roblyn Powley is a student at St. John Fisher College.