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Natural Awakenings Tucson

Lean On Me: The Refugee Youth Mentorship Program Gives Hope to Refugees

Oct 30, 2021 09:00AM ● By Suzie Agrillo
Nonprofits not only serve individual clients directly, but they can also generate a broader benefit to the community as a whole. One such exemplary social service program, which assists refugees and helps them assimilate into our community, is the Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest Refugee Youth Mentor Program (RYMP).
   
The organization has a clearly defined mission that meets specific needs. Their mission is to stabilize people during crisis and transition, build a foundation where people can thrive and preserve dignity and respect for the most vulnerable. Many refugees come to this country alone. RYMP works to create a sense of belonging and a social network between refugees and the Tucson community.
   
For refugee status youth, resettlement in the U.S. can be an isolating experience. From experiencing the horrors of war to losing loved ones, the journey of survival is one that can leave a lasting impact long after they’ve found safety in a new country.
   
By matching mentors with refugee status youth, RYMP aims to foster self-discovery, create a strong sense of community and equip refugees to successfully navigate new systems while honoring their own cultural contributions to society. In doing so, they envision a world where refugee status youth can make a deep connection with the Tucson community through reciprocal, strength-based mentorship, in order that they may become empowered self-advocates that will invest in others.
   
We spoke to Heidi Urbina, Communications Coordinator, and Brooke Balla, who developed and runs the RYMP program, about opportunities to become a mentor, raise awareness and to assist with their fundraising goals.

What is your background and education, and what motivated you to work in social service work at LSS?
Heidi: I attended the University of Arizona, majoring in public health and Spanish. After graduation, I spent a year living in Uruguay with the Lutheran church. When I returned, I worked in behavioral health before coming to work at Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest four years ago. I have enjoyed working in a variety of roles here and seeing the power of community connections.

Brooke: I attended Prescott College in Prescott, Arizona. It is a small, private college, and its mantra is social and environmental justice. I studied Social Justice Education and Bioregionalism. My background in international development and education spanned over five years when I led programs in 15 countries.
   
I moved to Tucson to work with refugees, and while I waited for a job in the field, I worked on the Pascua Yaqui Indian reservation and developed a mentorship program. When LSS received a DES grant two years ago, I was hired. We looked at gaps in the refugee settlement process, and through a SWOT Analysis, found there were opportunities to improve access to resources in building life skills specific to refugee status youth.

What can you tell us about the program?
Brooke: The culturally responsive mentorship model is unique. It’s not taken from anywhere else; it was developed by our team and it focuses on SMART goals. The themes are college readiness/job readiness/career exploration/building English language and life skills.
   
RYMP provides leadership, structure and healthy relationships for refugees between the ages of 15 to 25 who are within their first five years of resettlement. Mentors and mentees are asked to make a four-month minimum commitment, making contact at least once a week to work toward the mentee’s goal.

What is the difference between asylum seekers and refugee status?
Heidi: Refugees are people who were forced to flee their country because of a fear of persecution based on their race, religion, nationality, membership in a social group or political opinion. They apply for refugee status in another country and go through the process to be resettled before arriving in the U.S. Asylum seekers apply for asylum status after entering the U.S., or while seeking admission at a port of entry.

What is the greatest reward of your job?
Brooke: I am humbled by the stories unveiled every time I meet a family. Getting to hear their aspirations as we sip tea and find connections is a joy. I’m proud of the relationships built and accomplishments made by our team and with the support of community partners. You know you’ve succeeded when people join the program because of word of mouth. Both mentors and mentees are referred by their friends, which is a huge endorsement of RYMP and our newest Ambassador Program.

Do you have a favorite success story?
Brooke: My favorite success story is about a family who originally came from Afghanistan, finding refuge in Turkey before being relocated to Tucson right on the cusp of the pandemic. Within six months, the three girls in the family were all matched and thriving. The oldest daughter, now 22, was awarded a full scholarship through Yoga Oasis and became a certified yoga instructor. Even more remarkable was that one of her teachers spoke her native language, Farsi. The second daughter, now 19, became fluent in English and earned a full scholarship to the University of Arizona and is aspiring to become a pediatrician. The third daughter, age 16, is still in high school and attending Pima JTED, exploring a career to become an architect.

What is the Woman’s Empowerment Program?
Heidi: The program was started by local volunteers, and is an opportunity for women who came to the U.S. as refugees to build community and learn skills, like English, computer literacy and sewing. Program participants sell the items they create on our Etsy store (RefugeeMade.etsy.com) to make additional income for their families. The artisan is paid 80 percent of the sale price, while the other 20 percent is reinvested in supporting the program.

How can individuals, businesses and nonprofits help to assist your organization?
Brooke: One of the biggest misconceptions is that you must be Lutheran to help. Anyone can help. The top organizations in the community which have assisted us and contributed the most to our success are: Yoga Oasis, which offers free classes to mentors and mentees to practice yoga; Iskashitaa Refugee Network, which provides art and gardening activities and assists with referrals; Tucson Village Farm, which offers produce to families and co-facilitates events like Top Chef competitions and team building through High Ropes Course; and Lapan Sunshine Foundation, which has provided college leadership summits and scholarship opportunities, and is a pillar with networking.
   
We have had a total of 220 mentors, 15 cohorts, since the inception of the program. We currently need about 20 mentors to provide one-on-one support to our mentees. The process involves an interview, background check and obtaining a fingerprint clearance card. We also ask for references and a resume.
   
RYMP staff will check in with both the mentor and mentee monthly and assist with coaching and problem solving if needed. If you are interested in becoming a mentor, you can fill out an online interest form at lss-sw.org/rymp.

Besides mentorship, how can our community help to support your work?
Heidi: If you can donate, every cent counts. Monetary donations to LSS-SW are eligible for the Arizona Charitable Tax Credit (donate link: lss-sw.org). We are also looking for leads on affordable rental properties in Tucson for refugees. In-kind donations, including diapers, cleaning supplies, new bedding, towels and furniture are accepted. We do not accept clothing donations.
   
Businesses and professionals can assist with employment opportunities, sponsorships of events and programs, and providing a half-day introduction to being a dentist, doctor, nurse, lawyer, etc., by allowing a mentee to job shadow them. Churches can get involved by serving as co-sponsors, which assist in the process of welcoming refugees.

What are the main reasons for refugees leaving their country?

Brooke: Every refugee story is different. They may have to leave due to government
corruption, religious persecution, ethnicity, the impacts of climate change or war. Afghanistan is one of the countries in the news right now, but currently our biggest demographics arrive from the DRC, Sudan, Rwanda and Syria. Some refugees who were professionals must start over in minimum-wage jobs, such as being a dishwasher, because their degrees may not be recognized in the U.S.
   
A lot of the youth were born in refugee camps. They have to grow up a little bit faster and help their families survive. They may suffer from complex trauma, so when indicated, we focus on mental health by creating safe spaces to build community, whether it be cooking and sharing a meal together, practicing yoga for the first time or sharing resources for self-care.

What is the GRACE Act?
Heidi: Each year, the President determines the amount of refugees that will be allowed to come to the U.S. The GRACE Act is the Guaranteed Refugee Admission Ceiling Enhancement Act. This legislation would protect and restore the U.S. refugee resettlement program by preventing a U.S. President from setting a presidential determination on Refugee Admissions at a level below 125,000.
   
Due to the reduced refugee admission ceiling set by the former administration, organizations have been forced to downsize and many programs have been decimated. If you want to support the proposed legislation, contact your legislators, explaining why you believe we should honor our country’s tradition of welcoming refugees into the U.S.

Lutheran Social Services of the Southwest is located at 3364 E. Grant, in Tucson. Connect at 520-748-2300 or lss-sw.org/RYMP.

Suzie Agrillo is a freelance writer in Tucson and a frequent contributor to Natural Awakenings Magazine. She focuses on writing about the arts, inspirational people and the human connection. Connect at [email protected].
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