Monday, August 12, 2013

Helping the Refugees of Royal Oaks Apartments

By Nathan Davis

DES MOINES, Ia. — When I pulled up to Royal Oaks Apartments, regality was the last thing on my mind. This complex, nestled in the heart of Des Moines, is home to people who are more than just impoverished — it houses families who have escaped the horrors of war and political persecution. As I watched children play with one-wheeled bicycles and adults convene by a rusted picnic table full of books from the Des Moines Public Library, I wondered how I could actually make any lasting impact on these peoples’ lives.

I had arrived to work with a small group of Iowans that helped Burmese refugees and other members of the Royal Oaks community learn English, gather necessities for their families and explore their faith through biblical passages. As I got out of my car and approached several volunteers who were setting up plain white tables that would soon hold snacks and beverages for the residents, I realized how I was going to make a difference — by showing compassion and understanding to my fellow human beings.

I must admit that I knew almost nothing about the struggle of refugees before this summer; acknowledging this fact made me realize that there must be other Americans who know very little about these peoples’ plight. So I decided that along with my time spent directly helping those less fortunate than myself, I would also research the refugees’ lives.

Volunteers working with the International Rescue Committee lead a group
of residents from Royal Oaks Apartments in sing-along Christian praise
songs.                                                                                        (Contributed Photo)
According to the International Rescue Committee, refugees are “men, women and children fleeing war, persecution and political upheaval.” The committee also notes that 42 million people are displaced worldwide and around 12 million of them are officially deemed refugees (having crossed an international border). Thousands of those refugees have found their way to America; our country lets in over 50,000 refugees per year and hundreds of those refugees are now living in Iowa. However, finding a safe haven does not mean that the turmoil has ended for these families.

That’s where we can help. The resettlement process starts with loans — big ones for families who are far from guaranteed a steady income. The U.S. Government covers refugees’ flights to the United States and the necessary fees to initially obtain housing, but that comes at the price of loans that will eventually repay most of these expenses.

“Depending on the size of the family and how far the plane traveled, the bill can exceed $10,000,” wrote Michael Matza in the Philidelphia Inquirer. “They must begin reimbursing the federal government after five months, and pay in full within 42 months.”

These loans require a quick turnaround for families who are not accustomed to our job market, let alone our predominant language.

Volunteers from my group help hire and act as financial counselors for these refugees to ensure that they have a reasonable time and means to pay the loans. These same people also assess what families need to stay healthy and actively search for jobs. While some volunteers teach English or give lessons on job searching, others often take individuals to the health clinic or local grocery store.

Refugee families usually arrive with few possessions and often lack necessities like cookware, silverware, adequate wardrobes (especially for Iowa winters), shoes — and even beds. Last winter, volunteers led a huge effort to provide these necessities for four families that had recently moved into Royal Oaks Apartments. Every summer, volunteers hold a clothing drive to help families get everything from snow boots to swim suits.

Despite all of the efforts that these volunteers put forth to help refugee families, it remains an uphill battle. And in that battle, there is one thing that means more to these people than any amount of clothes or lessons that they have been given — compassion. The fact that a group of strangers would dedicate their time and money to help people less fortunate than themselves sends a strong message to this community. It shows them that in times of war there is love, in times of struggle there is help and that there are people who care about them and want to help them live fulfilling lives. That message resonates in every smiling child and grateful adult at Royal Oaks. While my first impression didn’t leave me thinking of regality, my last impression has left me with something much more satisfying.

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