South Charlotte

Welcoming refugees to the U.S.

Sometimes, it doesn't take much to give refugees confidence in their assimilation - to help them realize it won't always be a constant struggle to read the mail or navigate the health-care system. To let them know they have a friend in this foreign land, thousands of miles from their home, and often, their family.

That's the mission of Refugee Support Services of the Carolinas, a grassroots nonprofit in Charlotte that helps refugees become self-sufficient and thrive in the U.S. Last year, the nonprofit helped more than 320 refugees from Southeast Asia, Iraq, Afghanistan and all over the world, who were victims of persecution, natural disasters or war.

Running on donations alone, Refugee Support Services isn't large enough to sustain paid staff. Co-founder Rachel Humphries, 48, works as a full-time volunteer, and more than 150 people help the nonprofit in some capacity.

The organization was founded in 2006 by Humphries, who was teaching English as a Second Language at Central Piedmont Community College at the time, and Lauren Moore, now 23, who was a student at Queens University of Charlotte volunteering with Humphries.

Refugee Support Services is considered a post-resettlement organization. When refugees first come to the U.S., local offices of federal resettlement agencies help them make the immediate transition: getting an apartment and job, enrolling in English classes, etc.

But even with steady housing and a job, many refugees just need a friend - a guide who can help them navigate their new culture. Volunteers with Refugee Support Services will help them get connected to the library and give them first aid kits, cleaning supplies and kitchen tools. Many refugees have never used an oven.

Every Wednesday, they have a "help clinic," where volunteers assist with computers, routine medical care or reading through refugees' paperwork. "When we've been looking through folks' mail, we've found checks in the mail that were going to be thrown away," said Humphries. "Refugee friends ask us normal things like: 'What is Google?' or 'In Charlotte there are panthers and bobcats. Do I need to be afraid of them?' These are things that aren't necessarily involved in resettlement."

Soon after it was founded, Refugee Support Services started "Fruitful Friendships," where families or individuals deliver vegetables or fruit, to a refugee family, and then sit down and chat. Only an hour a week is required, but most often, the relationships blossom.

In April 2008, Marci Mroz, 51, started meeting with Vietnamese refugees Het Ramah and his wife, Honh Puih, and their children: Eo, Plu, Ut, and Sarena. Het Ramah - the first to come to the U.S. - left Pleiku, Vietnam, because he and his family were severely persecuted for being Christians. Once in the U.S., he had to save money for nearly four years before his family could join him.

Mroz has built a deep and enduring relationship with the family. Over the years, Mroz has helped them with vital tasks like applying for food stamps and Medicaid. She often goes with them to medical appointments so they understand the doctor.

They also do fun activities with Mroz and her family, such as cooking American-style dishes and swimming. Recently, Mroz took them to Lazy 5 Ranch, an animal park in Mooresville.

"(Getting resettled) is such a unbelievably brave thing for people to do who are in dire straits," said Mroz. "There's no point in throwing them in this country and then letting them wither away....We need to make sure they succeed here."