As the executive director at Journey’s End Refugee Services (JERS), Karen M. Andolina Scott oversees the agency, under the guidance of a board of directors. She leads the way on programming, plus communications with funders, affiliates, and the national office. She directly oversees administration, development, and the legal program. Her deputy director oversees the resettlement programs, which include employment, education and special programs. She spoke with Karibu News about World Refugee Day, and its importance in the community.
How does JERS celebrate World Refugee Day?
One of the main ways that Buffalo celebrates World Refugee Day is with a tournament that includes soccer and other activities—it isn’t sponsored by any agency. We are part of the planning committee for that and support it with a donation; it takes place on May 28.
Our participating soccer team—unlike some other teams, which might represent a specific country or ethnic group—is made up of students aged 18-25 from different backgrounds from our Making A Connection program. World Refugee Day is actually June 20—we are looking at whether we’ll do any additional activities or events closer to that day.
Why is World Refugee Day important for Buffalo and Erie County?
The soccer tournament draws positive attention to refugees who make this area their home. Sports are important to many different people; they understand it. So, that’s a great way to bring people in from outside the refugee world. It highlights how much these people love the city and are celebrating their new lives here. The additional activities, like dancing and music, help to celebrate refugees and their cultures.
Do you help refugees who were educated and/or who worked as professionals to pursue a similar and appropriate careers here?
Our employment department works individually with clients. We look at their backgrounds, and whether they brought credentials with them. We try to place them in jobs that match their past schooling or experience if possible.
In addition, we provide vocational training to our clients to prepare them, for example, for janitorial or cooking jobs. For one specific employer, we train people who may have an engineering background so that they can pass a math-based test to get employment. We partner with the other resettlement agencies in the region so we can provide a wider range of training classes
What is your approach for getting people work in general?
We try to take a client-centered approach. It’s not about what we think would be best, but about what they are looking for when beginning their job search. Someone who was a professional back home may not want to do that. In Journey’s End offices, we have colleagues who were doing something completely different before they came here. They want to be doing this work.
For, some clients, it’s not possible to do the same thing here that they were doing abroad; they may not have the license or proof of education. It’s a fact of life that a lot of people face underemployment, not just refugees.
What are the employment opportunities for illiterate refugees?
People who can’t read and write aren’t automatically blocked from getting a job. Our “Green Shoots For New Americans Refugee Agricultural Program” has a farm training aspect, which can be good for people who can’t read and write. Someone who is illiterate can work, for example, at a hotel. Perhaps the manager is literate and fluent in English, and understands that the worker can do the job. We try to be creative; we’ve developed strong relationships with employers, who are learning the value of hiring these workers.
How does JERS assist asylum seekers?
Our legal program files affirmative asylum applications, and also helps represent clients in removal proceedings who want to file defensive applications.
There are differences in the services for which an asylum seeker, versus an asylee, is qualified. In working with asylum seekers, it’s often more than just the legal piece: if they qualify as a torture survivor, we connect them with the WNY Survivors of Torture Center, in which we are a partner.
Once the seekers get employment authorization, they can get help with housing and employment. We can help acclimate them to life here without the formal resettlement process.
And, when someone is granted asylum, a status which is part of the immigrant group—those who intend to stay here permanently—some of our other services come into play, like employment and education.
How do you prepare new Americans to deal with xenophobia or other racist encounters?
Almost every refugee has experienced persecution (or fear of persecution) based on race, religion, ethnicity, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Regrettably, having xenophobia or prejudice against them isn’t new for a refugee coming here. In our cultural orientation, we focus on interacting with people, and what life in Buffalo and Erie County is like. We’ve found much more positivity and acceptance than negative reactions.
Jana Eisenberg is a Buffalo-based writer and editor.