Muncie Community Helps Refugees Acclimate to New Home
East Central Indiana residents are embracing Afghan refugees in their community.
Creating more diverse and equitable communities in the region not only benefits existing residents culturally, but it also makes East Central Indiana more competitive for the global job market.
In Muncie, helping families in need has reaped rewards for the volunteers and residents. Following the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, tens of thousands of Afghans came to the U.S. as refugees. More than 7,000 refugees arrived at Indiana’s Camp Atterbury alone. Most are young families – there are more than 1,000 children age 3 or younger.
Muncie residents accepted the challenge of embracing them in their community. Among those leading the charge is Bibi Bahrami, who arrived in the U.S. with her husband as refugees after the Soviet invasion in 1979. They settled in Muncie, and in 2002, created the nonprofit Afghan Women’s And Kids’ Education and Necessities (AWAKEN). This organization focused on providing women and children with health care and educational opportunities, touching more than 700,000 Afghanis since its inception. Bahrami and her husband pulled different community leaders together not to discuss if Muncie would assist with resettlement, but how.
Several religious institutions in the community, including the Islamic Center of Muncie, Temple Beth El, First Presbyterian Church, Holy Trinity Church and the Unitarian Universalist Church convened small groups to identify potential needs of the incoming refugees and identify individuals and organizations best suited to support those needs.
From those early meetings, a new organization, Muncie Afghan Refugee Resettlement Committee (MARRC), formed to help address different areas of cultural integration for these new arrivals. Ari Hurwitz, executive director of MARRC, said the organization’s goals are to first help refugees resettle in Muncie, and then build a network around them.
“We really want to support them at every level. Survival is important, but to rebuild and thrive, you need community,” he says.
These “New Neighbors” are matched with volunteer “Welcome Families,” who help refugees integrate into their new home. Daily activities like eating dinner together offer opportunities for both families to commune, and specialized programming like ESL classes, women’s sewing classes and soccer clubs for children all focus on different areas that will help refugees adapt to their new environment.
Refugees are also set up with employment opportunities, sometimes before they master English. The Horizon Convention Center, local hotels and Muncie Community Schools are all employment partners placing refugees looking for work.
“Our employment committee matches opportunities with individuals. All those seeking employment have gotten it,” Hurwitz says. “We’re at a time and place where employers can’t fill jobs, so we have employers very excited about people coming in to fill those jobs.”
Welcome Families also play a role in assisting with employment opportunities by helping their New Neighbors acclimate to cultural norms refugees may encounter in the workplace. Welcome Families can also teach New Neighbors how to use public transit, set up a bank account, find required work attire – anything that helps the refugees live independently and sustainably.
Even the local school districts benefit from refugee children. “Schools receive money per student, so refugee enrollment gives that school an incredible boost after years of declining student population,” Hurwitz says.
With more refugee families expected, Hurwitz says MARRC is still looking for contributions. Whether signing up to be a Welcome Family, leading a class on how to balance a checkbook, cleaning and furnishing a new home for refugees, or simply donating funds to support all these activities and others, Hurwitz stresses the importance of continued community engagement.
“We’ll have over 85 new neighbors by the end of March,” he said. “There’s no doubt the community benefits from cultural diversity. You can’t overestimate the value of having so many different perspectives.”
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