Margaret Webster ’16: Advocacy and Direct Support in Refugee Resettlement

The following is an edited transcript with Margaret Webster ’16, who received a Strong/Gault Social Advancement Internship Grant from Bowdoin to work with two organizations this summer, English for New Bostonians and Refugee and Immigrant Assistance Center.

What prompted you to work for not just one, but two organizations that that serve the immigrant community this summer?

I knew I wanted to find a summer internship working with immigrants/refugees so I reached out to several organizations in Boston at the beginning of second semester. ENB (English for New Bostonians) and RIAC (Refugee and Immigrant Assistance Center) happened to email me back within days of each other and I had pretty much back to back phone interviews with them. When I spoke to the director of ENB she asked who else I was speaking to. As it happens ENB funds the English class at RIAC. She suggested that splitting time between the two organizations could be beneficial. That idea really appealed to me because while both organizations serve a similar demographic they do so in very different ways. ENB funds and promotes quality ESL classes across Boston, so they aren’t working directly with immigrants but more in an advocacy role. With RIAC I am working with the resettlement case manager who very much works directly with refugees. Her role is to get refugees through the resettlement period (their first 90 days in the U.S.), so at RIAC I am getting a lot of hands on experience and learning a lot about the resettlement process.

What are your days like?

My days at RIAC really vary. Some days are realively slow, but others can get pretty hectic. Our office sometimes has less than a weeks notice of refugees’ arrival, or several arrivals in a short period of time so there is lots to be done in and out of the office. With RIAC, especially as I’ve gained experiece, I spend more time out of the office — checking on clients, bringing them to appointments, etc. When I’m in the office I’m usually doing paper work or doing research to find English classes, apartments, etc.
At ENB I generally help with whatever the task at hand is for the day. ENB has just completed their grant proposal review process so there has been a lot to do as far as sending out decision letters, grant agreements, etc. I got to sit in on the proposal review sessions and board meetings where they made their funding decisions, which was very interesting. ENB also recently became an independent 501c3 organization, and I’ve been helping with fundraising and researching what sort of fundraising opportunities exist with the new status.

Can you recount one experience so far that has been particularly meaningful, interesting or challenging this summer?

At RIAC we have a recent arrival that is a family of eight, all women and children, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They all speak Kinyarwanda and not a word of English. I went with the case manager to their apartment, accompanied them to the Department of Transitional Assistance and to enroll the younger children in elementary school. A few days later I went on my own without their case manager (my boss). Through hand gestures and smiles I brought the teenager and his mother to the high school to enroll him, made sure the women got to their English class on time and brought the younger girls for their English test at the elementary school.
It’s definitely a challenge communicating and explaining how things work to a family who spent the past several years in a refugee camp. When they arrive we literally create a new life for them, which is a lot of responsibility. I was pretty nervous to take the family to their appointments on my own, but all things considered it went smoothly. And now that I’m more comfortable and familiar with the whole process I hope to be working directly with our clients more.It’s pretty incredible to see a family like this one, who got off a plane with one suitcase for 8 people, starting a new life here. And it’s a really great feeling to be able to help them in that process.

What do you hope you’ll gain from this experience?

Going into this internship I was hoping to gain experience working with immigrant and refugees as well as in the social service field in general. I wanted to get hands-on experience as well as gain a better understanding of how nonprofits work. Now, about a month into it, I have learned so much. Coming into this I knew very little as to how a refugee starts over here or how nonprofits apply for and receive funding. Now I have experience in nearly every part of the refugee resettlement process and I’ve seen firsthand how grants and funding decisions are made. I’ve also been gaining a lot of experience in areas that I wasn’t necessarily expecting. ENB does a lot of work advocating for and influencing policies to help immigrants; right now we’re planning an event for the fall where the mayor of Boston will recognize businesses who host and encourage ESL programs for their employees. I’m so grateful that I’ve been able to have this opportunity thanks to Bowdoin and the Strong/Gault grant.

Have your studies or activities at Bowdoin intersected at all with your work this summer?
This past semester I volunteered in an ESOL class at Portland Adult Education with a group of Bowdoin students. I’ve always been interested in ESL and working with immigrants, but at PAE I also met many refugees (a lot of Somalian refugees especially have settled in the Portalnd area). Through talking with them I became interested in the resettlement process; I was curious as to how people from Somalia ended up in Maine.

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