The Advance Project Profile: RISSE - Albany, N.Y.
Young violinists perform a playground concert at Emmaus United Methodist Church, home of RISSE
Each year, some 400 refugees settle in Albany, N.Y.
The United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants assists the adults and children during their first 90 days of relocation. However, most of the new arrivals need additional help to learn the language, understand the culture and secure employment.
"Most refugees can't speak English when they come to America," says Rifat Filkins, executive director. "They are afraid to leave their house because of the language barrier. Significant cultural differences also are a challenge for them."
RISSE offers language and literacy instruction and helps develop life skills and integration into the U.S. culture in order to build sustainable, independent lives.
When RISSE began offering English as a Second Language classes in 2010, 82 people secured jobs in the first year because of learning the language. Attendance is a requirement for families in Albany to receive public assistance.
Today, the classes and after-school programs serve 150-200 men, women and children each week. The families have relocated to the United States from 22 countries, said Filkins, a native of Pakistan.
Mugging for the camera is just one of the activities bringing these little boys together at RISSE.
Volunteers work directly with teachers to better serve the 85 children in the Monday-Friday after-school program. A seven-week summer program teaches English and lets children and adults participate in field trips and reading programs. Hot meals and snacks are part of both programs.
RISSE also helps parents find day care, sets up job interviews, provides transportation and assists with finding housing, healthcare, and food and government assistance.
Most of the families RISSE serves come from countries of conflict, Filkins said. "Some have been through very difficult times, including losing loved ones. These hardships — compounded with not knowing the language or culture — make relocation challenging."
Filkins tells of Thyea Reh, who was born in a refugee camp in Burma and came to the United States with his wife and five children. "They had no schooling in their home country, and transportation in America was different. Without understanding English, they were fearful of leaving their house for the first two years," Filkins said.
"However, because of RISSE, Thyea learned English and his children attended the after-school program," she says. "And soon after, Thyea got a job at a local hotel."
Heather Peck Travis is a freelance writer based in Glasgow, Ky.