As they waited and waited at a bus stop on a Sunday five years ago, Mohammed Alkwaz and his sister didn’t understand why the bus was taking so long to arrive. A woman passing by told them the bus didn’t run on Sundays. Unable to get ahold of the few local contacts they had and with no other way to get home, they walked to a nearby motel and asked the receptionist to call them a taxi.
Alkwaz came to Albuquerque from Iraq in 2012. He was one of nearly 60,000 refugees who resettled in the United States that year. He said the process of resettlement comes with many challenges — including language and cultural barriers.
“It’s not easy to change your life. Outside of your home country, everything is different: the culture, the system, the language,” Alkwaz said. “Imagine you are going to change your whole life for you and your family. It’s so difficult because, for me, I have no choice.”
He is currently working as a refugee leader for the Refugee Well-being Project (RWP), one of several organizations in Albuquerque that are working to address the challenges that refugees face while resettling here.
RWP is a nine-month program and class at the University of New Mexico that pairs refugee families with undergraduate students who work together on whatever goals the families have. This often includes things like applying for government benefits, practicing English, and finding housing or employment, according to Margaux Lopez, a senior who is taking the class during the fall semester.
Sometimes, though, refugee families have issues that are more difficult and complex to resolve, like trying to reunite with family members who are still in their home countries.
“It’s a tough process because it’s interfering with the political situation that our country is facing now, and [the Trump administration] has done a lot to try not to allow some refugees from different countries to come to America…,” said Martin Ndayisenga, who, along with Alkwaz, is also working as a refugee leader. He’s originally from Burundi but came to the U.S. in 2007 and works as a recognized community-based research specialist.
“ We’re still trying to work together with the local organizations to advocate to increase the number, on the local level or national level, and worldwide,” Ndayisenga said.
RWP was founded by UNM sociology professor Jessica Goodkind, who became interested in refugee advocacy when she spent two years working with refugees in Thailand after finishing her undergraduate degree. She developed the program during her dissertation at Michigan State University, where she worked with Hmong refugees.
“Refugees aren’t just these sort of vulnerable people…They work really hard and they adapt to things quickly and they’re bringing a lot of life experience and knowledge,” Goodkind said. “Many refugees already speak multiple languages which helps them learn a new language. So, there’s a lot of strengths that they’re bringing here, and if they just have the space and support to build on those, then they’re often going to do really well.”
Goodkind implemented the program in Albuquerque in 2006. She spoke with Catholic Charities, the only refugee resettlement agency in Albuquerque at the time, as well as refugees about what their needs were.
“A big consideration for me was, ‘Well, I have these ideas of what worked there, but how will it be here?’…So I talked with lots of people and then we decided that we would start it up here,” Goodkind said.
Maria Kentilitisca became involved in advocacy work by volunteering with RWP. She is now working as a public ally at Lutheran Family Services (LFS), the primary refugee resettlement agency in Albuquerque.
“Our mission is to basically provide the support and the necessary supplies for refugees in order for them to become self-sufficient and independent,” Kentilitisca said.
One such program is Beyond the Plate, a vocational culinary training program for refugee women who are able to share their expertise and traditional cuisine with the public through a series of cooking classes, catering events and food markets.
“It’s a very unique and beautiful program because we are allowing our aspiring chefs to share something that’s very close to home and through this, you not only get to understand where that person comes from, but through stories, you understand their journey,” Kentilitisca said. “Our cooking classes aren’t just technical; we also talk about their culinary experiences and their journey.”
There are currently three women in the program. The women hope to start a catering business or buy a food truck that would ideally operate as a cooperative that all interested refugees could share.
“There is an idea that refugees come here and then just take advantage of our welfare programs. That’s not the case whatsoever…and government assistance is not that much,” Kentilitisca said.
The federal government provides rent assistance for newly-arrived refugees, but only for the first three months, after which point they are expected to find employment. This isn’t always easy, though, particularly for refugees who do not speak English.
“Three months is not enough. Three months for a newcomer in this country is like three days,” Ndayisenga said. “They don’t know how to drive, they need to attend school. English is another challenge…It is not a long enough period of preparation for living in this country.”
Federal policy changes in recent years have not only affected the amount of assistance that refugees receive, but also the operations of organizations such as Refugee Well-being Project and Lutheran Family Services.
“Trump got elected and drastically cut the number of refugees, and not even the numbers he’s allowing in have actually been allowed to come, so the numbers are very small right now,” Goodkind said. “So, what that has meant is it’s been hard in terms of funding for the resettlement agencies to keep their services going…but it’s also meant that we’re now able to give families even more attention and support in a way because there are fewer.”
According to an evaluation commissioned by the Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs, most refugees currently arriving in Albuquerque are from the Near East, South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. RWP primarily works with refugees from the African Great Lakes region, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.
A recent change to RWP is the addition of refugee leaders — like Alkwaz and Ndayisenga — , who represent each of the four primary communities the program works with. Both Alkwaz and Ndayisenga joined the program as participants and now work full-time as interpreters and facilitators.
“Now, we are shifting for refugee leaders to be more involved in this program…so that this program can be more led by the refugees themselves. Because we know how the program is helping and we now have those refugee leaders advocating for other refugees,” Ndayisenga said.
In addition to helping refugees access resources and supporting them in becoming independent, both the Refugee Well-being Project and Lutheran Family Services hope to raise public awareness about refugees.
“I think that the Albuquerque community could benefit from the realization that immigrants and refugees are part of the fabric of our community. This is now their home and their city,” Lopez said. “As fellow community members, we can get to know and welcome them, be patient with language differences, educate ourselves about global politics and their home countries and support legislation that allows them access to rights and services everyone deserves to have.”
Bella Davis is the Editor in chief of Best Student Essays. She is also a contributor to the Daily Lobo.