Ways You Can Help Refugees: Former Obama Chief of Staff Speaks at Holy Cross

What can college students in Worcester do to help refugees in their community?

Photo credit: Flickr CC U.S.-Islamic World Forum. Cropped from original.

By Stephen Lenane

If you ever watch the news, there is no denying that immigration and refugees are some of, if not the most, popular topics today. So when Denis McDonough came to speak at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, the entire room was packed. There was even a long line of people waiting to get in and hear his unique perspective.

McDonough served in the Obama White House for eight years, first as head of Strategic Communication for the National Security Council, then as Deputy National Security Advisor, and finally as Chief of Staff for the entirety of the President Obama’s second term. As someone who worked directly with President Obama everyday for four years, he got to see and influence policies on refugees at the national level.

During his talk, McDonough spoke in-depth about what the Obama Administration did to help with the refugee crisis. He also discussed policy differences between the Obama Administration and the Trump Administration. Specifically, he discussed the decrease, by almost half, in the number of refugees admitted to the country by the current administration, as well as the current administration’s cutting of aid to the countries, like Jordan, that have housed the most refugees for the past two years.

McDonough told the audience, “The countries that house refugees are often those least equipped to meet their needs.” He spoke about the importance of continuing to provide aid to these countries for things like medical access and education. He also touched on the family separation policy used by the Trump Administration.

While speaking about the refugee crisis in the country, he brought up ways local citizens can help on the national, state, and local level. He discussed various organizations in and around Worcester that help refugees be successful in the United States, and how people in the area—in particular college students—can provide support.

McDonough’s focus on how college students can help was one of the most intriguing parts of his talk. He spoke about the different organizations in Worcester, like the Worcester Refugee Assistance Program, or WRAP. WRAP and other programs across the country help refugees become self-reliant while they are relocated.

McDonough explained that once refugees are relocated to the United States, they only receive three months of aid before they are basically left to fend for themselves.

Programs like WRAP help refugees throughout those three months while the refugees receive aid and continue to do so after that time ends. WRAP puts refugees in contact with jobs, helps them fine stable housing, and gives them a community and safe place to go to.

Lesa McWalters, the executive director and founder of WRAP, explained how the refugees who came had almost no concept of western culture.

“WRAP, specifically works with refugees from Burma” said McWalters. “Our mission is to empower those refugees to become self-reliant, independent, and to no longer need our services.”

“For the first five years, our services were really basic survival,” she continued. “How do you use your food stamps, how do I pay my rent, how do I get a job, how do I take the bus, how do I cross the street, where can I find clothes, where can I find food?”

Another huge part of WRAP was teaching the refugees English in order to properly prepare them. McWalters explained that the skill can be valuable when kids go to school and when adults are applying to jobs. It is also extremely important for refugees to have a good grasp on the English language if they hope to apply for citizenship.

“ESL classes. A top priority was to get them to speak English,” McWalters said. “Right now our primary service is education.”

Programs like these are important for refugees and rely on volunteers to help make their services possible. This is where college students at Worcester State and the other schools in Worcester come in, whether it be volunteering time with WRAP, or by donating money through their website. Volunteers usually work with children at WRAP’s after school program.

“We only get donations and grants,” McWalters said. “Part of my job is to write grants. Needless to say, in our current political climate, a lot of our funding has dropped.”

As McDonough pointed out, when given the support they need, refugees go on to become extremely successful, opening their own prosperous businesses, attending colleges, and starting families. That support can oftentimes be vital to their success, and, as McDonough showed, that is where students can help.

Watch Denis McDonough’s full talk here.

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