The Far-Reaching Impacts of VISTA Service

Nathaniel Harrison is the Assistant Director at the Tennessee Office for Refugees. He has supported people with refugee status in many ways throughout his career. Recently, he reflected on his service as an AmeriCorps VISTA working with Refugee Youth Mentoring programs in Tennessee.

“Mentoring… is about developing a relationship with someone who cares about you, and having that person walk with you through thick and thin.”

Several months ago, I completed a year of AmeriCorps VISTA service with the Tennessee Office for Refugees. During my service I provided state-level oversight of Refugee Youth Mentoring programing. This included guiding VISTA members placed within refugee resettlement partner agencies as they developed and implemented programs matching refugee youth with members of their community to build skills focused on long-term integration.

When I started my VISTA service, I was the last member to join a six-person VISTA cohort. Early on, I engaged my more experienced colleagues to better understand their vision for the future of each agency’s refugee youth mentoring programs. One of my colleagues shared:

“Mentoring… is about developing a relationship with someone who cares about you, and having that person walk with you through thick and thin. While our mentors can also help with navigating college applications, identifying and setting goals, updating resumes and more, at the end of the day a mentor is someone who encourages you, advocates for you, and cares about you.”

Their words highlight the impact that youth mentoring programs can have on youth and how the power of a personal connection can support individuals though challenges. As I reflect on this comment, I can also relate it to the experience I shared navigating challenges with my VISTA cohort. During our service, each of us were challenged at some time as we developed programming. We struggled to belong as we worked remotely and coped with the precarity of a pandemic world. Throughout our service we supported each other while navigating personal and professional challenges, and we dedicated ourselves to a program that we envisioned could make a difference in people’s lives. Our collective experience navigating challenges strengthened our bond as a cohort just as mentees and mentors do through a mentoring match.

VISTA service brought a group of people in different stages of their lives together, and over time, one by one, our one-year service terms ended. Many of the cohort transitioned from VISTA members to full-time positions with the agencies where they served. Others went on to different challenges in graduate school or in other career opportunities. Over a year later, I still connect with my colleagues from that first VISTA cohort. It’s not as often as I would like, but when we do connect, we still encourage, advocate, and care for each other as we encounter and overcome challenges in our lives – just as mentors and mentees do in the programs we spent our service creating.

In the first year of the program, the Refugee Youth Mentoring Program has grown across the state, building a community of VISTA members, volunteer mentors, and refugee youth.

How Do Agencies Help Refugees Find Jobs, and Other Important Questions…

The main priority of the Refugee Resettlement Program in the United States (other countries have different priorities) is self-sufficiency as soon as possible. All the stakeholders in this process recognize that there are many important factors to self-sufficiency including stable housing, English language training, community integration, and not least employment.

So, let’s take a few moments to talk about refugees and jobs.

  1. Agency employment staff members develop relationships with employers and with clients.

By getting to know their clients, their work histories, how much their monthly expenses are, where they live and what their transportation options are, employment staff members are able to connect each client with the best possible job.

The relationship with the employer is as important as the relationship with the client. Developing relationships with employers allows employment staff members to better understand the jobs available. This means workers will have more options as well as more realistic expectations. Those relationships also make it possible for the employer to go back to the employment staff if a placement doesn’t work out. The key to these relationships, according to one of our partners, is open communication.

  1. Agency employment staff members provide job training.

Job training usually includes an orientation to workplace expectations in the United States. Some clients have extensive work history but in a very different culture. Other clients may have no formal work experience, having been vendors or farmers in a rural system of entrepreneurship. These trainings ultimately lead to increased job retention.

Job training may provide an introduction to how to complete an application. This is usually done in the first weeks upon arrival as clients don’t yet have the necessary documents to work but have all the desire. Learning how to translate their life experiences into work histories and gaining the English skills needed to complete a job application will help clients get better jobs. Better jobs mean earlier self-sufficiency.

  1. Refugees are eager to get to work.

We often hear endearing stories of clients calling resettlement agency supervisors to complain that they haven’t been placed in jobs yet. In most of these stories, the supervisor looks into it and finds out the client has only been in the US for a few days and doesn’t yet have all the paperwork necessary to work. We also hear about refugee elders who are entitled to social security benefits, but would rather be working.

Those anecdotes are evidence of refugees’ drive to support themselves and their families. One employment specialist explained that refugees are eager to work because, “The ability to provide for one’s family and self is incredibly fulfilling and restores a sort of normalcy that is so often missing when someone arrives in a new place.”

  1. Refugees aren’t taking jobs away from anyone else.

Many of the jobs that our clients start out at are relatively low wage but very physically demanding. They may be processing vegetables or meat in a very cold environment on their feet for eight to ten hours a day. These same employers place billboards on the interstate hoping anyone will apply. The employment specialist at World Relief Memphis, Emily, explains that, “Based on the sole fact that they have fled persecution, refugees already show they are resilient and hard working.” For them, this isn’t an interim job, it’s a path to self-sufficiency with benefits and opportunities for growth.

We’ll leave you with an example:

Alina at sewing employerAlina was resettled from Ukraine through one of our partners in 2017. She got to work as quickly as possible and received very positive feedback from her employer, a small sewing company. Here are some of the words and phrases her employer used to describe her: Employer's description of Alina

Single Mom to Self-Sufficient

Here at TOR, we like to do fun stuff for our partners once in a while. So, we decided to go on an Appreciation Tour. Our stop at Bridge Refugee Services in Chattanooga was a pleasant opportunity for TOR staff who do not have the privilege of working outside our four walls to meet partner staff members. It was also a delightful chance for all of us to celebrate the victories of the last year. We were all especially moved by one simple yet powerful story.

Before being resettled to the US, Noora (pseudonym) and her infant daughter had been living in a refugee camp, where there were no jobs available. Her husband had stayed behind in Iraq, despite the danger, in order to eke out a modest living to send to Noora and baby girl.

Noora and her daughter were resettled in Chattanooga in early 2016. Bridge resettlement staff took notice of the fact Noora spoke English very well. At one time, Iraq had been a place in which education was attainable and Noora had studied English. Bridge staff knew that Noora would have more employment options because of this one skill.

Bridge staff helped Noora enroll in some basic services to ensure that they would have short-term access to food, child care, and employment services while they got back on their feet. Before long, Noora was utilizing the services of an employment agency which helped her obtain clothes appropriate for a professional work environment.

Each of the challenges Noora faced was met with determination and optimism. Noora soon found work at a cell phone store within walking distance to her apartment and child care. Her customers are other immigrants and refugees who live, as she does, nearby. She loves helping people connect with each other, getting to know her community, and supporting her family.

Noora was a young woman when she left Iraq. She was a wife and mom. She had never been employed. Now she thrives on the independence that workforce participation offers. She hopes that her husband will be able to join her in the next year.

Noora is an inspiring example of how refugees, with some local support, can become vital members of the community.