Resiliency in Resettlement: A Conversation with Della Lamb & Jewish Vocational Services (Part 1)

hawkins@growyourgiving.org Individual & Family Giving

In part one of a two-part series, Philanthropic Advisor Kelli Doyle is in conversation with Hilary Cohen Singer, Executive Director of Jewish Vocational Services and Ryan Hudnall, Executive Director of Della Lamb Community Services. The leaders of the refugee resettlement nonprofits are preparing to welcome hundreds of Afghan refugees to Kansas City on an expedited timeline, and share about the resettlement process and how our community can step up to meet the needs of our newest neighbors.

Find part two of the series in your podcast feed or on our blog.

A transcription of the episode can be found below. All episodes of the Grow Your Giving podcast can be found on major streaming platforms like Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and online at growyourgiving.org/podcast.

Authored by: Ashley Hawkins, Content Specialist


Episode Transcription

Introduction:
Welcome to the Grow Your Giving podcast, powered by the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation and our national entity, Greater Horizons. We aim to make giving convenient and efficient for our donors through donor-advised funds and other charitable giving tools. The Grow Your Giving podcast discusses philanthropic topics to help you enjoy giving more. Find us online at growyourgiving.org.

Kelli Doyle:
Hi, I’m Kelli Doyle, a philanthropic advisor with the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation and Greater Horizons. Today, I’m excited for you to hear part of a conversation with Hilary Cohen Singer from Jewish Vocational Services and Ryan Hudnall from Della Lamb Community Services. We talk about the current challenges and opportunities that refugee resettlement agencies are facing today, and what it looks like for our community in Kansas City. Hilary and Ryan, thank you so much for joining us. I’d like to start with you, Hilary. Can you tell us a little bit about your background, and how you came to the work at Jewish Vocational Services?

Hilary Cohen Singer:
Yeah. So I grew up in Kansas City, and I moved away, and I lived in New York for 15 years, and I came back to Kansas City, and I was looking for opportunities in the nonprofit sector, and got introduced to JVS, and really just fell in love, because it combines for me a number of things that are really important to me personally, as somebody who’s part of the Jewish community, I am really struck by the compliment of our founding. We were founded in 1949 to provide support to the Holocaust survivors, and other displaced people who were coming into Kansas City, and so we have that rooting in Jewish history and in Jewish values in terms of welcoming the stranger.

Hilary Cohen Singer:
And so I like that rootedness, but also the orientation is towards the community at large, and providing that service to anybody who wants to take advantage of it. So the mission really resonated for me. And so when I came to Kansas City, I got hooked on JVS, and I started as a consultant, and then as our associate director, and now as executive director, and so I’ve been engaged with the agency for 10 years now.

Kelli Doyle:
Awesome. Thank you so much for sharing. Ryan, I’d love to hear your background, and how you came to your role at Della Lamb.

Ryan Hudnall:
Yeah. So raised on the prairie in southwest Kansas, moved to Kansas City in ’99, and so this place is deeply home. I want to love my city well. If I think about the end of my life, when people say, “Who was Ryan?” I just want to love my city well. After graduating from Truman State, I joined the accounting firm, KPMG, and spent seven years there, was a CPA and a corporate auditor, auditing side. And people were like, wait a minute, auditing. And it was just an amazing way to, to introduce me to so many of our city’s institutional businesses, and really understand processes and flows. And just think about who we are as a city. While I was at KPMG, they gave me this just remarkable freedom to take a sabbatical each year that I upped the ante my fifth year at the firm and spent six months in Haiti.

Ryan Hudnall:
And it was just a time of deep listening, exploring, exploring areas of economic developments, faith-based entity engagement and orphan care and orphan prevention. And so after that time, my heart was deeply attached to the Haitian community and other international communities and joined another nonprofit here in Kansas City called the Global Orphan Project. While I was there, had the opportunity to explore and understand different crises and triggers of displacement and orphan care. And then think about how do you, how do you respond well to that? How do you provide, how do you come alongside families and developing nations? Through that time and got to travel and meet so many people across the globe. So many internationals who were actively working for the welfare of their cities in Haiti, India, Lebanon, and the Dominican Republic. And they just inspired me in such a way that I couldn’t even articulate that they were pursuing the welfare of those in their city.

Ryan Hudnall:
And so as they were just inspiring me and I was reflecting upon Kansas City, the executive director at Della lamb was retiring and through some contacts, I just started falling in love with Della Lamb, with all the initiatives. My mother was a first grade teacher. And so issues of early education have been so, have just been beaten into me since birth and the importance of literacy and my passion for the international community, just because they’re my friends and they’ve stayed in my home. It really resonated with me. And so Della Lamb really captured my heart. And I joined in August of 2019 as the executive director.

Kelli Doyle:
I’d like to just dive into this topic, Hilary, we’re going to start with you. Would you tell us a little bit about the typical refugee resettlement process and why someone, an individual or a family, might find themselves in a situation where they would need to be resettled?

Hilary Cohen Singer:
Sure. So a refugee is an individual that has faced persecution because of their race, their religion, their ethnicity, their membership in a particular social group, and they’ve been forced to flee their country for fear of their lives. And generally, when this happens, individuals present themselves to the United Nations high commission on refugees, and they seek protection there. The average length of time that people take advantage of this protection, whether it’s in a refugee camp or in a city somewhere is 17 years. So it’s a really long process to move from that refugee camp into another location. The solutions for refugees are to either go back to their home country in safety. And I think we can all imagine that that hardly ever happens. Conflicts are really prolonged. And so it’s rarely safe for people to go back home. They can adjust their status in the country that they’re in, and that does not happen a huge amount, or they can resettle in a third country like the United States.

Hilary Cohen Singer:
And that really only happens for less than 1% of the world’s refugees. So I think at last count there were somewhere around 26 million refugees worldwide, and it is a tiny, tiny percentage, less than 120,000 that have the opportunity to resettle anywhere else and build their lives. And so that small percentage, which represents the most vulnerable refugees, have the opportunity to come to a place like the United States and live in safety and freedom. And so they do that in coordination with the United Nations and with our federal government. And once they gain entry, then resettlement agencies like JVS and Della lamb have the privilege of helping to welcome them and make their home here.

Kelli Doyle:
Thank you. Thank you for that background and a great segue into my next question. Ryan, I’ll kind of punt this one to you to start with. Can you talk a little bit about once someone’s being resettled and comes into our community, what that process looks like in your organization day to day, and really, can you give us a sense, kind of a two-part question here? Can you give us a sense of what success looks like in the resettlement process and what you’re trying to achieve?

Ryan Hudnall:
The resettlement process from the Della Lamb’s end, it’s so contextualized based upon the family that it’s difficult because of all the regulatory requirements associated with welcoming someone and helping them on their pathway to community integration while also being client-centric. So there are the federal and state programs that we engage in, and the regulatory requirements that we must meet as part of the welcoming process and the longer road to community integration. So the first is called reception and placement, it’s a federal program overseen by the state department through another agency called PRM. That is a very, very short timeframe and it’s that initial welcoming process. It can last 30 days, but it’s generally extended up to 90 days. And that is the time that we make sure health screenings are performed. We set up homes and work with community partners to identify home furnishings, to place in homes.

Ryan Hudnall:
And really just it’s the very initial welcoming. School enrollment is also part of that. After that, we work with our clients to determine what is the best next step. Sometimes it’s an appointment-related program such as match grant, which allows us to tap into incremental federal resources, to provide to families that can continue with the transition. Other times it might be more case intensive programs, where we’re really working with families to identify barriers towards that journey of community integration and overcoming those. And then there will be state programs that we participate with the Missouri office of refugee administration to really just continue that long-term case management and that can extend for up to five years. So this is really your compliance side, right, where we’re meeting the regulatory requirements for the federal and state programs. But as we think about what is excellence look like? What does success look like?

Ryan Hudnall:
It’s so hard because the refugee resettlement system is structured around financial self-sufficiency. So in one component, we want to get our clients, those that we welcome to a place where they are off public dependence and are beginning the natural integration here. And so identifying employment, securing safe and comfortable housing, identifying a community of wraparound support that is going to welcome and help those understand all the incredible differences from where they’ve come from, to life here in the United States. And so that journey of community integration, it doesn’t take months. It takes years. It takes a long period of time. And so you remembered that those who are coming come often with nothing. And so they’re building their lives here.

Ryan Hudnall:
And so finding those natural communities of support, working with employers, the resettlement agencies, and other nonprofits who have emerged in response to other needs of refugees can help accelerate that. But the complete change in dynamics from where one’s been to where one is, it’s a decade of a journey. And then you’re continuing on and the ripples of the resettlement will continue on and reshape a city even, over the course of decades.

Kelli Doyle:
Absolutely. Hilary, is there anything that you would like to add to what Ryan said, or any differences that you guys experienced in your organization from the day-to-day side?

Hilary Cohen Singer:
Yeah, I think a lot of it is similar in terms of providing really intensive services for those first 90 days. And then walking along with people, accompanying them on their journeys with whatever it is that they need. Our services are divided into sort of three categories. So we do that initial work in our community integration. We have a workforce development department that focuses on employment. And then we have a health and wellness department where we have case managers and therapists that specifically focus on physical and mental health as the sort of, one of the foundational building blocks of successes to be able to have your health and individuals who are coming from other places may not have had the same access to physical health resources. And so we help them navigate those. And we know that individuals who have had to flee persecution have experienced tremendous loss and trauma.

Hilary Cohen Singer:
And so we focus on helping them with the mental health portion of the work that they need to do to accomplish what they want to accomplish in their lives. I think one of the… I agree with Ryan that this is a decades-long journey to integration, but I do think that you can see really tremendous results, even in a short period of time, in terms of the change in somebody’s circumstance. I’m thinking of a young man who was resettled by JVS when he was about 14 or 15, and he didn’t speak any English at the time. He got connected to Kansas City public schools and learned English and managed to graduate from high school by the time he was 19 or 20, right? Because he had such a gap in his educational journey. Took him a little bit past the traditional time to gain his high school diploma.

Hilary Cohen Singer:
But he went on from there to university where he ended up serving his senior year as president of the student body. And he came back to Kansas City, one, to be with his family because those family relationships are super important. So, his dream is to work for the United Nations, but he didn’t go off to DC right away. He came back to Kansas City. He lives with his family. He works in the Kansas City public schools to provide the same kind of support that he received to other refugees and immigrants who are coming along after him. And he has plans for law school. And I see tremendous things for him and his future and his family that he would not have had the opportunity to do, had he not been able to come and make a new home for himself in Kansas City.

Ryan Hudnall:
I marvel at the resilience of those families we receive. They’re highly entrepreneurial in nature. They’re incredibly resilient, wonderfully hospitable, and make really good friends. They can be very gracious, and so they’ve enriched, not just Della Lamb but my life personally. Over the past few years through some of our employment programs and as JVS has workforce development programs, employment is incredibly critical to every refugee resettlement agency. And so we cultivate partners and our rates for job placement are so high. So Kansas City is an incredibly right environment. And these particular days with what’s happening with Afghanistan and the need, that so many employers have identified to find people, we’ve had a number of employers reach out directly and say, Hey, I am totally open to the opportunity to employ refugees and would love to understand what it would take to do that.

Ryan Hudnall:
And so what we’re seeing here now is an immense opportunity to address current needs that the city has. And so that is one of the amazing aspects of what’s happening is that those who come, we want to listen and respond to their needs. Certainly, they’ve endured great trauma as part of this whole transition from the downfall of Afghanistan and all the steps that have been taken to reach Kansas City. But there is a mince opportunity to address a critical need Kansas City has right now. And so they can step into jobs that employers are having incredible difficulty finding new staff and provide immediate benefit to our local employers, our city, and start contributing. So, so much here about how refugees contribute to our city, much beyond simply receiving some initial benefits our federal or state government or some assistance from donations.

Kelli Doyle:
Thank you both so much for sharing those stories with us. From the day-to-day side, it sounds like you both have very skilled and flexible staff to be able to respond. And we’ll get into some community partner discussion them a little bit, but Ryan, I kind of wanted to pick up from where you just left talking about specifically the situation in Afghanistan and the rapid fall of the Afghan government and how it’s really impacted both the scope and execution of refugee resettlement, Afghan refugee resettlement specifically. Can you talk a little bit about how Afghan resettlement is a little bit different? Hilary set us up with a nice picture of what the typical resettlement process is, but how is it different today for these Afghan refugees?

Ryan Hudnall:
Yeah, so the primary divergence from our typical process is the notification period that we’re going to receive to welcome someone. And so all of those that we receive have gone through incredible trauma through the displacement triggers that result of them leaving their country of origin. Those evacuated from Afghanistan are a bit different because it’s coming from the country of origin, which resulted in some complexities related to the legal status, which we’re starting to get some resolution on, but it was one of those lingering questions that added a bit of complexity to the process. However, in our typical resettlement process, we’ll get notification anywhere from two to four weeks that will allow us to identify housing, to begin furnishing the housing. In this instance, we’re going to get notification, they’re saying typically will be 48 to 96 hours. And so imagine receiving notification, and then not only is it identifying affordable housing, which is already a challenge that faces our city, but then we have to rally community of support to identify all the home furnishings that will go into a home, work with them to furnish the home, work with property managers.

Ryan Hudnall:
And so the complexity around housing has really put a lot of pressure on the resettlement agencies across the country, in response to this. Other things though, as we receive them, as we welcome them, because of that uniqueness with the short-term notification period, it will put pressure on our financial resources because we’ll have to pursue short term housing options with hotels being the most likely option. Airbnb has raised their hand and is providing some support. But generally speaking, hotels will be our primary option. Finding those partners who will provide subsidized rates for us to have a short term assistance there before we can identify the permanent housing.

Ryan Hudnall:
So there’s a ripple effect because that short-term notification not only is housing an issue, that puts more pressure on our financial resources. The other critical aspect of this is the volume that we’re expected to receive. And so, with so many coming at once, it’s already a challenge identifying housing, preparing your employer partners, finding linguistic competencies either through volunteers or through contracted interpreters. It’s already a challenge with one family. Now we’re going to see an influx. And so how do we prepare ourselves to respond to that? So not only is it, are there nuances in our typical process, but there’s also an influx of arrivals, which is complicating matters a bit more.

Kelli Doyle:
Thank you, Ryan. Hilary, anything to add to what Ryan said about kind of the differences in the process. And then also I’d like to invite you to sprinkle in maybe some data for our listeners to really understand Ryan had touched upon the scope, but can you give us a sense of how many refugees will be coming into the Kansas City community and the timeline, some specifics around that?

Hilary Cohen Singer:
Sure. So both JVS and Della Lamb are preparing to welcome pretty large numbers of Afghan refugees over the next couple of months. I think JVS’s number is 300 and Della lamb is at 250. So that’s 550 folks coming into Kansas City in the next few months. And we are being asked by our national partners to work as quickly and as large a volume as we can because this situation now that’s different from the typical refugee experience is that typically refugees are living overseas. They’ve lived there for a really long time. And so there isn’t the same sense of urgency in terms of having them move quickly. What’s happening now is there are folks on military bases and there’s a pressure to get people off of those military bases and into some kind of a permanent situation as quickly as possible, right?

Hilary Cohen Singer:
Living on a military base is not the ideal that anybody wants. And so we are being asked at JVS to welcome a minimum of five and as many as 11 families per week to help absorb folks that are coming in off of those bases. They did a survey of national resettlement agencies and asked everybody what their capacity was. And the national capacity came back at 37,000, which is a lot of people. But there are upwards of 50,000 people that need a place to go. So I think the quicker and that we can respond to this, the easier it will be so that people get to a place where they have some stability and consistency. And I think that’s one of the other things that differentiates a little bit, this situation from the typical refugee experience. I don’t mean to glamorize in any way, what it must be like to live on a refugee camp, but there is some degree of stability and predictability and folks have been making their lives there sometimes for decades, they have friends and family that are nearby.

Hilary Cohen Singer:
And so there’s a little bit more… There is a little bit more stability to that environment and the folks that we’re talking about from Afghanistan, six weeks ago, they probably had no conception that they would have their lives uprooted, that they would find themselves on a military base in Wisconsin or Dallas or somewhere like that, thinking about building a new life for themselves in a city that they’ve never heard of before. And so the immediacy of that change and that trauma, I think, is something different that our agencies will need to take into account as we help people adapt to life here in Kansas City.

Kelli Doyle:
And you mentioned earlier about 1% is typically the number of folks that are actually brought through the resettlement process. And you mentioned that they are the most vulnerable. How is vulnerability calculated or how is it determined that a family is vulnerable or an individual is vulnerable?

Hilary Cohen Singer:
Yeah, so the United Nations has technical definitions for vulnerable. And so it’s single women and children, people with complex medical issues who are not able to obtain treatment there, people who would have difficulty integrating into the mainstream society there. And so that often means members of the LGBTQ+ community. So things like that.

Ryan Hudnall:
You think about vulnerability and you think about susceptibility to external circumstances as well. And so how will changes in a medical diagnosis right, and this is beyond refugee resettlement, but how would changes to income infect housing? So for our homeless population. So you think about how impacted someone is to those external circumstances and how it completely can change their lives. And so for refugees specifically, outside of the agency support and also community support that can wrap around families, there’s no financial safety net. You have to work through issues related to healthcare and been separated from those rich relationships that you’ve formed. Maybe in the refugee camp, but certainly from what you were at home. And so without that community of support, right, you think about our own lives. Without that natural community of encouragement, of your mentors, those who are investing in you, without that, you can be very lonely and isolated.

Ryan Hudnall:
And so that’s why, as we think about, and you ask about was what is success for the refugee? Certainly, there’s those measures that we have to think about and are important as you think about how do you address basic needs, like Maslow’s hierarchy. You have to identify issues of safety and security housing, but beyond that, what does it look like to have friends? What does it look like to have the loneliness overcome and feel part of something and to start reaching those higher pillars of self-awareness and self-esteem. And so that’s why it’s a journey. And we want to walk with our clients through that, but particularly in the initial arrival, the vulnerability aspects is if you’re not literate in English, how do you understand the laws? So specific incidents that our team has identified, it relates to the tax code.

Ryan Hudnall:
Now ask anyone, right? It’s like, Hey, could you explain the tax code to me? It’s like, excuse me? What? So you’re having those tax providers who will come and try and attract those who don’t speak English and don’t understand the tax code and say, I can assist you, but there’s a certain vulnerability, right? Because there’s no clarity as to what the law actually is and no access to it. And so circumstances like that provide a bit of color regarding what does vulnerability look like when you lack the language and lack the relationships that help you navigate those questions.

Kelli Doyle:
Ryan, thank you so much for sharing those examples. Well, I think this is a good place for us to take a pause here. We’ve laid the groundwork to have a solid understanding of what the typical refugee resettlement process looks like and how that is different for the influx of Afghan refugees that are being welcomed by agencies like Della Lamb and JVS. Come back for part two of our conversation where Hilary and Ryan will share how philanthropy can play a role in the refugee resettlement process and how gifts beyond monetary contributions can make a difference for our newest neighbors and the agencies serving them.

Conclusion:
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