by Susan Gonzalez | Feb 15, 2013 | Yale News
Two years ago, when she was just beginning to make a new home for herself in the unfamiliar city of New Haven, Katarzyna Rojek ’14 found that one of her weekly highlights was the time she spent with others who were also navigating life in a new community: the members of a recently arrived Afghani family which had spent two decades in a refugee camp in India before resettling in the United States.
As a volunteer for the Yale Refugee Project (YRP), Rojek visited the family weekly with two other Yale students, each giving time to assist the seven children with their homework and to offer advice on other practical concerns such as getting a driver’s license, making college plans, and preparing for standardized testing in school. She also helped various members of the family learn and practice their English.
After she fled an east African refugee camp without her mom, knowing not a word of English, Janine Irokoze leaned on a new friend—and a love for music—to help find her way in New Haven.
Now she’s helping that friend, and her other Fair Haven classmates, discover the songs and rhythms that have carried her through a remarkable journey.
Janine, who’s 14, grew up in the African country of Burundi; her family fled during a civil war. Separated from her parents, she is now living in New Haven with four siblings.
She’s one of 32 refugee students at Fair Haven School, which serves as the city’s official “newcomer center” for students from other countries. One hundred of the 726 students there have been in the U.S. for less than a year.
In just two years, Ouro-Aguy has already become a nationally ranked squash player. Under the guidance and trust of Squash Haven, a not-for-profit squash and academic mentoring program for New Haven kids, Ouro-Aguy, one of the some 70 team members, now calls the squash courts at the Yale Payne Whitney Gym, a second home.
Life in Togo, Africa, where he spoke Kotokoli, was all Ouro-Aguy ever knew for his first seven years. Then Ouro-Aguy, his two sisters, brother, and father, fled Togo in search of a better life. “My uncle came to New Haven before us because of the better opportunities he could have here. Even if you had a good education, it was difficult to have a good job and support a big family.” IRIS (Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services), a not-for-profit organization in New Haven, “has helped our family a lot. They found us a home, school, and helped us with food and clothing.”
His mother still remains in Togo. “We talk to her over the phone, but it’s not the same as seeing her. I miss her a lot.” It’s been four years since Ouro-Aguy and siblings have seen their mother; they dream of her joining them in New Haven someday. His father recently had back surgery, and lost his job working at a gas station, but “he’s feeling better and looking for a new job”.
That shot came Thursday afternoon at a job fair at Career High School, a fair that not only offered hope to hundreds of New Haven’s unemployed, but tested the city’s latest thinking about how to use government to get people working.
Patrick Ndagijimana, a 26-year-old trained accountant, came to the fair accompanied by his brother Daniel Biriko Mugao (at left in photo), with whom he arrived in New Haven last fall after spending 15 years in a Rwandan refugee camp following a childhood in war-torn Congo; and their friend Bereket Burey (center), an Eritrean refugee. They came along with a helper named Penny Schlesinger from the agency Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services (IRIS).
The three joined around 200 other New Haveners who crammed the Career lobby to check in. They had previously attended one of three “pre-screenings.” City officials checked their resumes and job histories, as well as how they dress and comport themselves, at those events. If they felt the people were ready to apply for jobs (not everyone made the cut), they gave them hours of lectures in how to make a good impression on prospective employers. Then they told them to return to Thursday’s job fair at Career—where 30 local employers set up tables in the sun-lit cafeteria to hand out applications or just discuss openings they have.
Photograph: Paul Bass Photo
The center gave Bill (not his real name) enough money to pay the mortgage that month, and both Bill and his wife landed new jobs soon after. The couple had been known in Guilford for their extensive volunteer efforts in the schools and at Guilford Food Bank.
“They waited so long to ask for help because they felt that other people were more needy than they were,” said Lori Lodge, operations director of the Women and Family Life Center. “It was a beautiful thing to be able to help someone who has helped so many people in our community.”
The funds came from a $15,000 grant last year by Neighbor-to-Neighbor Lifeline, an emergency winter fund-raising program started in 2008-09.
The Women and Family Life Center formed its own partnership with Guilford’s Department of Social Services and Department of Youth and Family Services, called the Guilford N2N Collaborative. The 2010 grant helped 10 families with 31 members.
This year, Neighbor-to-Neighbor has given the Guilford N2N Collaborative a $20,000 grant, all of it earmarked to help families with emergency housing needs. “It makes a huge impact on people’s lives,” said Lodge, who noted the center has seen a 25 percent increase in the number of people seeking help in each of the last two years.
The Guilford N2N Collaborative was among 53 area nonprofits, faith groups and municipalities that have requested more than $1 million this year from Neighbor-to-Neighbor, which distributes grant money directly to groups helping residents with food, housing and other emergency needs.