Team Meeting – WFDC and Blankets

Day 23

Wow, there was a lot happening today…

First thing this morning I got a call from one of our co-chairs.  She had gotten a call saying that a wash machine repair person would be at the house at 8:30 this morning, wondering if she could meet him there.  She agreed.

She was wondering if I knew about any other things happening today.  I said I thought we had drivers picking them up for a visit to the Workforce Development center today for their food and medical assistance meeting, but I didn’t think it would be that early.  She assured me it would be that early, but she thought it was tomorrow.   Together we combined to be one correct person.  The meeting was today at 8:30.  Clearly neither of us had checked our collective calender.  Fortunately those involved were all aware.

The driver arrived at about the same time as our co-chair.  With two Americans present they were able to convince the newcomers to leave their children at home to avoid the 4 hour appointment.  The crying only took about 15 minutes to stop so it worked out OK.  A noisy riding toy that was donated yesterday proved to be the trick to capture the attention of the crying boy.

Meanwhile the appointment at the Workforce Development Center (WFDC) did not take nearly as long as normal.  It was only about an hour and a half. 

If you read much of my writing in this blog, in other blogs, or in my book you’ll see that I am quite positive in my feelings toward the motives of other people.  I tend to give the benefit of doubt to others.  Some may call it naive.  I just happen to think that people are basically good and try to solve things in the best possible way, when they know how.  Where I do express some cynicism is in relation to “the system.”  Mostly though it’s a mocking humor because no one person could conceive of the craziness involved in various aspects of “the system.”

For example, in regard to the Workforce Development Center today, the appointment only took 1.5 hours instead of 4.  It turns out that the person helping out today has not handled a case like this in years.  So I joked that she wasn’t experienced enough to remember how to drag out a 1 hour meeting to 4 hours anymore. :)

One member on our resettlement team has worked exclusively with Burmese refugees over the years.  She has developed quite a network within that community.  So, for today’s WFDC visit, she was able to get a former refugee to help interpret.  It’s quite a convenience when we can get an interpretor that has been through a comparable experience.

A story from a few days ago was brought up at our team meeting tonight.  It concerned some blankets that were found at the house on move-in day.  It appeared to be a box of ratty blankets, the type we would wonder who was trying to pass off junk as a good donation.  One of the co-chairs took the box out to the garage, where we triage before committing goods.

The next day the box was back in the house.  Clearly someone wanted them.  The co-chair asked about them wondering if they “really wanted these old smelly things” and received confirmation that she believed meant they did want to keep them.  With the washing machine not working at the time, she decided to take them and wash them.  She had to give assurances that she’d bring them back.

As she pulled the blankets out to wash, she noticed writing on them that was clearly not English.  Finally it dawned on her that these blankets were precious possessions that a member of the refugee family carried with him in his luggage.

When she returned them the owner picked one up and sniffed it.  He said, “not smelly.”  And then, she believes, he tried to tell her they were from his mother.  Another good lesson for us.

The ABC’s of Donations

Day 22

All seems well at the family’s house today.  One of our team co-chairs met a member from our church congregation at the house.  This church member has really stepped up to fill in the gaps with donated items.  And, she’s gone above and beyond as well.

She brought new toys, books, a couple clothing outfits for the children, some brand new oscillating fans for the bedrooms, and a new car seat!  Going a step further, she went online to learn about the family’s dietary preferences and bought groceries for them too.  She also provided a gift card for the grocery store to help on a future visit.  Thank you!  Thank you!

When you are determined to do something good in the world, it is amazing the help and assistance that flows from other people.  God has directed our activities with abundance for the past 8 years.

Using the donated wooden ABC blocks our co-chair stayed a while and “taught” the entire family the alphabet song.  Everyone had a good time with several family members trying to sing along while the youngest kept trying to eat the blocks.

Meanwhile a couple more family members were taken to their new family doctor to have an arrival check-up.

A Lesson for Us and Progress

Day 21

While unpacking linens that were donated for the family, some napkins were uncovered in the box.  The women in the family were very excited, certainly more excited than we would expect, to see the decorative cloth dinner napkins.  Has it been so long since they’ve had a fine napkin to set on their lap or to wipe their hands?

They quickly started looking for the nicest ones.  Each woman selected her favorite and promptly put her choice on her head.  They also found one for the head of the youngest child.  Oh, now we get the cultural lesson.  The cloth napkins were just the right size for headcovering and much more glamorous than what had been available in a refugee camp.

One of the children had their first medical appointment today.  I won’t go into details because medical information must be kept private.  Let’s just say that it was a difficult process.  The clinic has access to a language line and was able to get a Burmese interpreter.  The mom speaks the Karenni language, not much Burmese.  In the future we’ll have to have the father along to speak to the language line.

After that the entire family went to the public health department for their required TB tests.

And then, a miracle happened.  The telephone was installed today.  I call this a miracle because getting telephone service is often a problem.  What helped simplify the telephone application process this year was that we had a social security number by the time the family moved into the house.  That meant that we didn’t have to jump through some of the usual hoops.

By the end of the day they the telephone number was assigned and the telephone line was working.  This is a great step forward.  It means that if there are any serious issues we can get them on the phone with an interpreter to help move communication forward.  Things are moving forward nicely.

Adjustments and Cultural Lessons

Day 20

One of our co-chairs and her husband went to the family’s house twice today.  First she returned some bedding that she had taken home to wash, and she picked up more blankets to launder later.  Yesterday we believed that the wash machine in the house did not work.  Today the consensus is that it works, but the cold water delivery isn’t up to par.  It will have to be fixed.

The first cultural lesson of the day could also be considered a food safety lesson.  This is a lesson we’ve had to teach to several families.  That is, leftover food should be refrigerated. 

In this case leftover chicken from yesterday’s lunch was discovered in a bowl in the cupboard.  We’ve seen other families use cupboards, the oven, and even microwave oven as food storage places.  If you consider their past, from days in a refugee camp, having leftover food is probably not a very usual problem.  And, when it is, you would want to store somewhere that bugs or other animals will not get it.  If a refrigerator is unavailable you’d work with what you have.

Common language is not necessary to teach this lesson.  Simply pointing, and explaining that it belongs in the refrigerator, while putting it in there is generally sufficient.  The lesson may need to be repeated before it really sticks.  We’ll also put this on our list of things to discuss further the next time we have the convenience of an interpreter.

On the second trip, our co-chair returned the freshly laundered blankets and supervised the delivery of new bed rails and the box spring mattress for a queen size bed.  She and her husband also swapped out the mattress on a twin size bed with a brand new mattress that was donated. 

They also demonstrated how to use the alarm function on the alarm clock the family received.  It seemed rather complicated so we may need to replace the clock with a simpler one at some point.  The use of an alarm clock becomes important when we schedule early appointments and becomes much more critical once employment is obtained.

Several bicycles were donated.  These are great for family members to get around and explore their neighborhood.  Until they master the local bus service and/or get a car the bikes can be a way to move around independently.  Someone on our resettlement team will have to take a look to make sure they’re all safe with tires properly inflated.

A retired plumber from our church stopped by the house to fix an outside water faucet.  It was dripping, OK running, much more than it should in an off position.  No point in running up extra water utility bills.

The other co-chair took the family grocery shopping.  This resulted in another cultural lesson.  Fortunately she noticed, before leaving the house, that one of the adults entered the minivan barefoot.  She had to point out that footwear is required in grocery stores.  This resulted in some conversation and the ultimate acquisition of shoes, potentially borrowed from someone else in the family.

While grocery shopping they indicated a need to purchase shoes.  Since the grocery store was not next to a shoe store that purchase will have to wait.

Overall the family seemed happy and pretty comfortable in their new home.

The Big Event – Move-in Day

Day 19

I really enjoy move-in day.  Actually this is one of my favorite parts of the entire refugee resettlement process.  Picking up at the airport is my other favorite time.  To me these are the big transitional moments.

So, move-in day…

We arrived at the temporary housing (their relative’s apartment) at about 9:20 this morning.  We already faced heavy driving rain and wind to get there.  I had our car, my wife had the minivan.  Another member of our team brought a car.  We had to transport 8 people, some mattresses, plus drivers and luggage, so we needed three vehicles.

The family was ready and waiting for us.  Between blasts of rain drops we hustled loads into the cars and van.  It appeared that everyone was anxious to move on and get to their own home.

By 10:00, or shortly thereafter, we had everyone to the house.  Work began about 9:00 so already much was in order by the time we arrived with the family.  For the most part we directed what went where, but whenever there was doubt we tried to get the opinion of the new occupants.

A living room was set up.  Dishes washed and in cupboards.  Beds placed in bedrooms.  Some pictures hung on walls.  Sheets, towels, utensils, tools, cleaning products, tables, lamps, television, and more all placed in appropriate places.

We had volunteers from church helping to organize and helping to pick up and deliver furniture.  Because of the weather our team had to pick up more than we had originally planned on.  Some of the previous owners were going to drop things off but they did not have an enclosed trailer.  So two guys on our team spent much of the day running around gathering things.  Too many couches.  Those will go to other families.  There were enough mattresses for everyone, though not all had frames yet.

Around noon, another Burmese family, our previous refugee family, brought over lunch.  There was a rice dish, a noodle dish, and my favorite – something called mow-ray-tow (at least that’s how I remember it pronounced) – that was flame throwing hot.  It was a red sauce that I put over white rice.  I kept going back for more.  Perhaps the pain was addicting.  My nose didn’t stop running for the entire meal.

Then back to work, moving more things into place.  We got the television hooked up to a digital converter box.  It pulls in a couple local channels.

The family was taught how to use a cellphone to dial 9-1-1 in case of an emergency.  They were showed how to use the electric stove.  We taught them about the fire extinguisher and had them test the smoke detector. 

I turned down the water heater which was previously set on vaporize!  Hopefully the temperature drop prevents the burning of hands or other flesh, both young and old.

By the end of the day, almost everything was in place.  Most importantly the family is happy, at least in this moment.  The darkest days are yet to come, but not for a month or two.  For now we celebrate this momentous milestone!

Final Preparations for Move-in Day

Day 18

The big news today is that we were finally able to get an intake appointment for food and medical assistance!  This will happen next week in a 4 hour-long meeting. 

For an average American family going through this process it is expected to be a 2.5 hour meeting.  Throw in an interpreter and we add another hour and a half!  Much of this could be eliminated if we, as sponsors, could just answer on behalf of the refugees.  Since the refugees don’t know the answers, we typically have to give the guidance anyway.

The other significant event is move-in day tomorrow.  Tonight our leadership team spent some time sorting donations.

Any time we ask for donations there are things we receive that we never asked for.  People with good hearts, who mean well, often contribute things that are wonderful, perfect additions that we would not have considered.  Sometimes we get multiple sets of things beyond our needs (for example, 32 sets of dishes might be a few too many).  And, sometimes they contribute things that we cannot use at all, things that may be clutter or even culturally inappropriate.

So before we take the effort to wash the extra dishes or figure out where in the housing the donated items may go, we spend a little time to decide what should be moved in at all.  As other people drop stuff off on move-in day we scramble to make similar decisions.  But the night before, we can take our time and plan the actions.

Usually after move-in day is completed, we have unusable things that we will take to Goodwill.  Other things are great for refugees in general, but unneeded by our current family.  Those items will go to LSS for another refugee family.  This year we have some things that we might even try to sell on Ebay or Craig’s List.  The money would go into our refugee resettlement fund and be used for food or rent for the family.

One Milestone Accomplished

Day 17

Yesterday provided the first notice from the Social Security Administration.  We received notice that they were processing the applications for the youngest two children.  Isn’t that great?  Those that need it least are being processed!

Well, with that prelude, we are nearly shocked into unconsciousness today.  The social security card, yeah the actual card, arrived today for the male most eligible for employment!  We never received notice that it was being processed, and yet here it is. 

There are seven cards to go, but because we have one, the world has just opened up.  Employment, assistance, even acquiring telephone service just got easier.  It’s a great feeling to reach this important milestone in every resettlement.

Another event that took place today was the meeting with the family and their case worker to discuss the matching grant program.  Even though we’ve been through this before, every detail was explained again.  I’m sure this is more for the family’s benefit than ours. 

One side effect of the matching grant program with a family of eight (well, two families of 4) is that they will receive a suitable starting level of monthly income.  Of course the hard part is that we’ve got to have sufficient in-kind contributions of time, mileage, funding to meet our obligation in the process.  Typically this has not been a problem for us as time is valued nicely.  Furthermore we’ll be paying rent, most likely in full, or nearly so, for the second and third months and then contributing at lower levels for several more months.

There is still activity at the house preparing it for move-in day.  Did I mention earlier that there was a wood-burning stove in the place?  We had that, and the brick platform it was on, removed for safety and liability reasons.  We are grateful to the volunteers that gave their time to take on this project which even includes patching the roof.

Excitement is building for the imminent move-in.  Even our team member who attended the matching grant meeting said that the family was rather smiley and excited about the upcoming move.  Phew!

Resettlement Team Meeting Two

Day 16

This is the first chance we’ve had to get the resettlement team back together since the family arrived just over two weeks ago.  Even so, we had only a total of 6 people available for the meeting.  We’d usually hope for more, but things are moving forward pretty good, so a small core was sufficient.

Two of those present were not from our team.  They were visitors from another church, quite significantly, the church that has resettled the relatives of our current family.  Their team was surprised to recently discover all the extra people living in their family’s apartment.  I can imagine that shock.  Our meeting tonight was a good opportunity to explain our situation and also learn from their experience.  This is their first resettlement experience and it sounds like they’ve been doing a great job.

Primary discussion was that of donations and move-in day.  We have nearly complete coverage of all required items (i.e. those items required by the U.S. State Department  ensuring that refugees receive a basic standard of living and are not just being dumped into tough conditions in a new country) and a fair number of niceties as well.

One of the interesting requirements is that each person have a bed.   It turns out that finding complete beds is usually one of our more difficult tasks, especially when we’re working with larger families.  What makes this requirement interesting is that often the beds go unused.  In some case, beds are not typical culturally.  So we provide them only to discover later they are used for storing other items, a gentle cushion upon which other goods can rest.

Often families have been living together in tight quarters so the are most comfortable to sleep all together on the floor.  We’re not here to push them into what we would call “normal” behavior.  But we make our “normal” available to them.  In time separate beds and bedrooms become appreciated.  We’ve not had a refugee family yet that threw away the beds to make more space available.

Our move-in day will start at 9 a.m. Saturday.  We have several teams ready to pick up donations.  Our previous Burmese refugee family, of Karen ethnicity, has volunteered to make lunch, comfort food for the new family.

Our meeting agenda also included discussion of the matching grant, a welfare alternative designed to financially help the refugees for 3 to 4 months while an aggressively looking for employment. 

Whether they receive the grant or apply for the state welfare program is the refugee family’s choice to make.  We strongly encourage acceptance of the grant because it saves our resettlement team from dealing with one aspect of “the system.”  It also frees up the family to job search and study English without the well-meaning, but cumbersome requirements of welfare.

We also shared an update on the status of applying for a food card.  Food assistance is available for low income families in Wisconsin, but each program is run by individual counties.  We typically apply within days of their arrival, but since they are temporarily in Milwaukee county, we’ve been unable to make real progress.  This could hurt later on as a delay will increase our need to provide food longer than anticipated and therefore at greater expense.

The Issue of Rent

Day 15

Since today is still mostly dedicated to preparation for move-in-day I thought I’d spend a little time talking about rent.  This always comes up in resettlement discussions.

The question really is how much of their rent should we subsidize?

I look at it this way.  Our goal is to help a refugee family become self-sufficient within 6 months or less, if at all possible.  Living costs money.  Self-sufficiency implies the ability to pay for their own expenses.  Therefore they must pay rent and understand the economics of doing so.

Obviously though they cannot arrive in the country and start making a monthly payment anywhere from $550 to $1000 without some help.

Here’s an overview of how we’ve handled it in the past.  Each case is a little different, but the essence remains. 

Every family receives some grant money upon arrival.  If the amount is sufficient, we prefer to make the security deposit and first month rent with their grant money.  We would like them to have 1/3 or more of their money leftover for other upcoming expenses.  If that’s a problem we’ll cover some of their first month. 

We always pay the security deposit with their grant money because they are free to move at any time.  The landlord will return their security deposit.  We do not want to be in the middle trying to get that back.

Usually then, we pay for the 2nd month rent at 100%.  For the 3rd month we pay 80 to 100%.  If there was still a lot of grant money left over we’d go with 80%.  If there was little left over we may pay 100%.  It also depends on how well we believe we’ll be able to find employment quickly for the eligible family members.

For the 4th and following months we ramp down while the family ramps up their payments.  We like to be done paying any rent by the 6th month.  I believe we’ve finished in as little as 4 months, but have also continued some support much longer.

If extra support is needed, I would rather have the family paying for their own rent in full while we supplement food or utilities or some other expenses along the way.  They must understand that paying rent, in full and on time, is important.  We want them to get into this habit as early as possible.  This way they will always have a home here.  And, if/when they decide to move, they’ll also have that freedom!

The Quest for Furnishings

Days 12 to 14

I’m putting several days together as our main activity this week has been the organization of donated goods for the upcoming “move-in-day”.  The majority of the household furnishings are being generously provided by members at our church.  Friends of members as well as other community contacts round out the donation pool.

The furnishings team leader has been making sure that every required item has a donor.  She contacts each donor to find out if they will be able to deliver to the house on move-in-day or if we should send someone to pick things up.  Our goal is that we acquire every item in advance of, or on, move-in-day.

If someone wishes to donate something large and they have no way to move it, then we dispatch volunteer drivers to collect the goods.  A few people with pickup trucks or trailers always make themselves available for this activity.  Sometimes we’ve had things dropped off at our house, or someone else’s, in advance.  In that case it makes a final journey on move-in-day.

I talk about move-in-day as an event.  It is.  We make a big deal of it.  We have the refugee family at their apartment or house we rented for them. Then people start arriving with stuff.  Lots of people and lots of stuff!  The refugee family gets to see empty rooms transform into a home before their eyes.  Of course they contribute in the process too. 

Some refugee family members help carry things.  Others help direct where they would like furniture to go.  At the same time we’re showing them where we put their stuff and how they use some of the stuff.  We also try to get across the idea that this stuff is now their stuff.

In this process they are seeing the outpouring of love and concern from potentially dozens of strangers.  A common spoken language is not necessary.  They feel welcomed!

Well, I’m getting ahead.  Move-in-day happens 5 days from now.  You’ll get more specific details then.