Monday, January 25, 2016

Bringing It Back Home: Services for refugees, asylum seekers, trafficked and displaced people in the San Francisco Bay Area


Photo from Refugee Transitions

Posted by: Jora Atienza

The experience of participating in University of San Francisco’s Academic Global Immersion course in Rome this Winter 2016 has been one of the most impactful experiences in my academic career. In looking at the European landscape facing refugee, asylum seekers, and displaced peoples and the individuals, organizations, and governments that support them, I have begun to consider what correlated issues and challenges exists back home in the United States.

While in Rome, us USF graduate students had numerous conversations about what and how to support the many organizations that we met and/or visited, including Jesuit Refugee Service International, Italian Council for Refugees (Consiglio Italiano per i Rifugiati – CIR), and Caritas Roma. Each organization provided a different aspect of support, from providing setting up refugee camps, providing formal and vocation education, legal aide for those seeking asylum in Italy and other European Union countries, family reunification and transition programs as displaced individuals begin to establish the lives in their new countries.

The various organizations also presented practical challenges that they currently face in their efforts to provide all of these services. I was struck at some of the similarities of these challenges with other direct-service organizations that I have worked with in the United States. These issues include: balancing visionary leadership with complex organizational systems needed to deploy the necessary services; marketing/branding of the issues to a larger general audience; ability to generate and/or utilize reliable data; and fiscal sustainability. While some context may be different or more nuanced, these set of challenges mirror what nonprofit organizations face in the US in their efforts to provide services to underserved populations.

In doing some research, there are a number of organizations and collaboratives in the San Francisco Bay Area that are trying to tackle the challenges surrounding refugee, asylum seekers, trafficked and displaced peoples. This provides us as returning students who have gone through this experience -- as well as the larger USF school community and SF Bay Area advocates and supporters -- ample opportunities to connect and serve in meaningful ways at the local level.

Like many of the organizations that our group met in Rome, the Catholic Church in the United States in deeply involved in this area. In the Bay Area specifically, Catholic Charities of the East Bay runs a Refugee Resettlement Program that provides support for refugees as they transition to their new lives in the US through a variety of direct services. Other notable organizations doing similar work include Refugee Transitions, based in San Francisco, which provide extensive educational, family engagement, and leadership supports and opportunities for these communities. In the East Bay, Center for Empowering Refugees and Immigrants (CERI) serves refugees and immigrants based in Oakland from Afghanistan, Bosnia, Cambodian and Iran. As a personal note, my family has been involved in volunteer efforts with the CERI community for the last several years through their English as a Second Language classes for their Cambodian refugees.

Coalitions of government agencies, direct service organizations, community-based groups, and individual advocates also exist, including East Bay Refugee Forum (EBRF) – of which Catholic Charities of the East Bay’s Refugee Resettlement Program is a part of – and San Francisco Coalition for Asylee, Immigrant and Refugee Services (SF-CAIRS). There is also the national and local work being done with both the US and Bay Area chapters of Jesuit Refugee Service through JRS USA.