Helping refugees on the road to self-sufficiency

Print More

When Jim Morris started working at Catholic Charities Family and Community Services, the agency was still resettling Vietnamese families. 

Now, that work has evolved to not only assist people from all over the world who come to the United States as refugees, but also to use the community’s resources in a holistic way.

“When I started, it was sort of split (between public and private), how many volunteers we had working and what they were expected to do,” says Morris, vice president of family prosperity programs and a 25-year veteran of CCFCS. “It was very heavy on the private side … mostly, I was handing off families, to churches, to groups of volunteers, and they did everything (from) soup to nuts.

“Now there’s more of a social work aspect to it,” he adds. “It’s person-centered, it’s trauma-informed, bringing in those types of approaches and practices.”

One aspect of that work is helping new refugees attain self-sufficiency. Recently, CCFCS was  awarded a five-year, $5.4 million job preparation and placement grant from the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance Bureau of Refugee Services. CCFS earned the grant through a competitive bid process.

“Just over the last few years, there’s been increasing levels of funding for refugee support,” Morris says. “Some of that is due to the response to providing more money for the Afghans that came in after the fall of Kabul and the Taliban took over and partly due to the Ukrainian crisis.”

“So, there’s been expanding money and expanding resources for refugee providers since the Biden administration came in and sort of rebuilt the refugee program after it was more or less dismantled by the Trump administration.”

For CCFCS’ Refugee Employment Services program, which provides job prep and placement for the refugee population, the funds will help ramp up their work. The RES program is part of the nonprofit’s Refugee, Immigration and Employment Department, which has more than 100 employees and has placed 370 refugees since 2019. Over the same period, more than half the refugees placed in jobs by CCFCS became self-sufficient within 90 days of employment, officials say.

Four former refugees now work with RES, which has a diverse team of seven. They provide services that include employment assessment and resume preparation, job search and completion of job applications, accompanying clients to interviews and orientations, and follow-up to ensure retention. 

“I’m grateful to a team that is very diverse, who came through the same path as some of the clients that we serve,” says Lameisha Mack, manager of RES. “Having someone that looks like them to share their story. I think that really makes a difference in them becoming self-sufficient and being successful and accepting all that America has to offer them.”

Mack hopes to use the new funds to pay for educational resources like training programs. 

“We do have various partnerships within the community,” Mack says. “Oftentimes those programs allow us to support our clients (and help them) become self-sufficient. Some people are not work-ready right away. So, we realized that we tried to put them on the path to becoming ready.”

The funding will also go toward materials or supplies on a case-by-case basis. 

“We do have the opportunity to be able to support our clients with some of the supplies needed for some of the training programs,” Mack says. “We’re also working with some of our partners to provide them with scholarships and safe spaces.”

CCFCS’ partnership with Saint’s Place, which also works with refugees, assists with driver’s licenses. Refugee applicants with a license have a chance at a higher-paying job, Mack notes.

Usually it takes three to six months for a refugee to become self-sufficient, where they don’t rely on public cash assistance. Then, there’s mental health and other medical support, and housing before a refugee is ready to work. For those who might need more assistance or take longer to stand on their feet, RES turns to community partners.

“If they’re on benefits, and they start working, then they would lose public cash assistance first, but still might be eligible for Medicaid, and we want to ensure that those that are eligible for Medicaid, get that assistance, because by and large, the jobs that you’re getting are entry level or slightly above,” Morris says. “And depending on the family, that could be one person supporting a family of six, seven, eight or more. So, even some families that are fully employed may not be able to leave public benefits, in which case, they’re getting assistance from the county department, as well earning income.”

Some might have health issues, including long-term conditions that might require supplemental income.

“We plug them into these different partners, whether they’re in the health field, the training field, the educational field, so that they remain on a continuum to improve their prospects for employment and self-sufficiency,” Morris says.

Rochester has long been a haven for refugees. In 2016, Rochester took in the most refugees of any community statewide with more than 1,000 resettlements in the area. The number fell during the Trump administration, but the pace has picked up under the Biden administration.

Mack and Morris, like others at CCFCS, find joy in helping people get on the road to self-sufficiency. It is not unusual for former refugees to visit the agency to share their successes. Mack recalls a client who failed his driver’s test.

“He was adamant about getting his driver’s license, he had saved up money to get a vehicle,” she says. “I was able to get him another opportunity to take some additional driving lessons and he passed his test the second time around. He is ready to roll.

“I got the pleasure of meeting his wife and children,and they expressed their happiness and gratitude for the support I provided and my team has provided to him with the opportunity of learning to drive. (His family is) also hopeful to learn how to drive from him as well.”

While Rochester has been a welcoming community, Morris believes there is more to do. Programs offered to non-English speakers, for instance, tend to be siloed. New entrants to the community would benefit from being paired with those who speak English to better their skills. 

“Keeping them separate can (create) limitations for them,” Morris observes. “They don’t get to see the big picture because they don’t understand everything that goes on in America, let alone Monroe County, Rochester. Bridging the gap with the program, offering more programs to not just Americans, but refugees too.”

More programming for refugees arriving here would be a boon, he adds, suggesting job-shadowing opportunities as an example. 

“I know there’s red tape stipulations, but it pains me to see a doctor coming from their country (to) have to start from the bottom,” Morris says. “Test their skill, see what they know before we write them off and say, ‘Oh, they’re not certified.’”

In addition to donations, there are several ways for community members to volunteer their time—as tutors or renters. Morris notes that it takes partners—including local government—and volunteers to resettle those fleeing unimaginable situations worldwide. 

“CCFCS doesn’t do this in a vacuum,” Morris says.

Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

One thought on “Helping refugees on the road to self-sufficiency

  1. It’s amazing when you think about it. The government’s open the border, WIDE, and those bad Christians, those Catholics that need to be harassed and monitored by our current government……are taking up the challenge to settle those who entered our nation. It’s almost surreal, isn’t it? You can’t make this stuff up. What a mess we have created. (and remember, not a Trump supporter, not a bad, bad Republican, not anti immigration…I am an immigrant at age 12, and one that is registered as an independant.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *