City of Refuge adjusts, aims to ‘focus on today’ as it supports immigrants amid uncertainty

The people who walk through the doors of the City of Refuge are family, its executive director Garrett Pearson said. The nonprofit strives to give refugees and immigrants seeking support a place they feel at home.

When the pandemic hit and isolation became the norm, connecting became more difficult. Instead of backing down, Pearson and his colleagues adjusted to ensure the people who turn to the City of Refuge still feel part of its close-knit community.

The nonprofit began offering Zoom training classes, driving people to doctors’ appointments and ensuring interpreters could translate over FaceTime. They met with people in-person when they could socially distance and offered technology support when they couldn’t.

“Our staff has gone above and beyond, working over what’s expected of them, to make sure every man, woman and child doesn’t feel secluded or left out,” Pearson said.

City of Refuge is being honored with one of the inaugural Kindness in Business awards in the Kindness to the Community category. The awards recognize businesses and organizations that have shown and promoted kindness during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Learn more about the Kindness in Business awards and meet the honorees.

City of Refuge aids refugees in the Columbia community through services including providing basic needs like food, clothing and household items, helping them find jobs and providing counseling. It was founded in 2010 after members of its current board saw a need to help refugees in Columbia, Pearson said.

The nonprofit currently employs four full-time employees and 11 part-time employees. It plans to add four new part-time positions with money from a recent grant it received to help refugee students transition to online school.

Pearson spoke with Missouri Business Alert about City of Refuge and its response to the pandemic. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Missouri Business Alert: How does City of Refuge try to embody kindness?

Garrett Pearson: I think City of Refuge embodies kindness through the way that they develop a sense of belonging for every person who now calls Columbia home. The people on our team have a firm commitment to make sure that nobody feels left out and no person who has come to Columbia, whether by their decision or not, feels like they don’t belong. For a group of people who come from groups that are very community-oriented and that do everything together, this necessity for isolation has been increasingly difficult for them.

MBA: What special efforts or adjustments has City of Refuge made during the pandemic to help its community?

GP: We’ve had to make a lot of adjustments. In the refugee immigration population, there is already a language barrier, there’s already transportation barriers and there may not be as easy an access to technology or the internet. Our staff has had to go above and beyond, mostly meeting with clients still in person, but socially distant, making sure that we can train our interpreters to communicate over FaceTime or over the phone, driving more families to doctors’ offices and hospitals because of new rules for how you’re allowed to enter.

We’ve had to add additional classes and training — we’ve been doing weekly Zoom training for some of our parents as they learn how to Zoom with their children’s teachers. Our Homework Helpers, for example, has increased because of the need for tutoring. We’ve had to expand to other nights of the week meeting with other teachers, tutors and volunteers to make sure that these people don’t fall behind because kids are often the first people to make meaningful connections through their schools for their families.

MBA: What has been the most difficult part of the last several months?

GP: I think the most difficult part has been an uncertainty about what the future looks like for refugee resettlement. It comes in waves, but the people that we serve add a lot of value to our community and into our economy. But with this pandemic, there’s oftentimes a lot of uncertainty about what it’s going to be like tomorrow. And we’ve had to learn to just focus on today. We can do what we can today and help the people that are in front of us today and keep taking the next step forward.

MBA: What has been a highlight of the last several months?

GP: Probably the biggest highlight has been the community’s response to support the City of Refuge and support our refugee and immigrant population. It always surprises me the volunteer turnout from advocates, partners and supporters in times of crisis. I mentioned the uncertainty, but that is often met with a rise of people wanting to make sure that this community is taken care of. When the pandemic first hit, all our volunteers who have buddies made sure that they were able to call their refugee buddy every single week to make sure that they had what they needed, whether that was groceries or just a friend to talk to. And that has been such a relief to our staff and our team because oftentimes when you don’t see how many people are helping, it can get overwhelming and daunting. But then you see a lot of volunteers and support, and it brings hope.

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