As Biden plans to boost refugee acceptance, local volunteers gear up with new fundraiser

Buoyed by President-elect Joe Biden’s pledge to greatly multiply the number of refugees admitted to the U.S., the Hyde Park Refugee Project (HPRP) is pulling its boots on. Their Winter Appeal on GoFundMe will raise dollars to continue supporting families already settled in the neighborhood, while also preparing the group to welcome new neighbors in 2021. 

For 2021, Biden has promised to raise the annual global refugee admissions cap to 125,000, which is almost 10 times the cap for 2020.  Help from organizations like HPRP will be critical. The group focuses on newcomers’ most urgent needs: food, shelter, health care and, not least, emotional well-being.

“We’re able to provide a little bit of comfort in a time when resources are low,” said co-founder Dorothy Pytel. It can mean a lot, she added, “just to know that there’s a group of people ready to support you, both financially and emotionally.” 

In 2020 “the trickle [of refugees into the U.S.] was very small,” she said. But “once Biden is inaugurated in January, we anticipate a return to [pre-Trump] levels.”  That means now is the time to get ready to welcome a new family to Hyde Park.  It begins with fund-raising, and finding an affordable apartment.  Once a home has been found and furnished, and a strong team of volunteers has been assembled, the group can apply to a settlement organization like World Relief or Refugee One.  

“Probably by the fall we’ll have a new family resettled,” Pytel predicted.  

More than 200 South Siders have participated as volunteers with HPRP, and others have made monetary donations. The first refugee family arrived from Syria in December 2016; they have since purchased a house in the suburbs. Since then, seven more families have been settled, including a family from the Democratic Republic of the Congo who arrived this past summer. 

Responding to the unpredictable needs that arise during resettlement is HPRP’s stock in trade. During the pandemic, learning challenges for both children and adults loom larger than ever. “If you’re an English language learner and now you have to work entirely online, it’s a double burden,” Pytel noted. 

With the help of two local congregations in the Hyde Park and Kenwood Interfaith Council, HPRP has created a pair of learning hubs to help the two families most challenged at present: the brand-new Congolese family, and another family in which a child now faces a life-threatening illness. 

The medical issue “has been very disruptive to family life,” Pytel explained, with many appointments to be kept for clinic visits and procedures. Parents need to take time off from work, and their attention is inevitably diverted away from their other children. To fill the gap, HPRP’s mentors kicked into high gear. 

“The learning hub affords the other children in the family a bit of stability in a tumultuous time,” said Pytel. “The faith communities have been very generous with their spaces.” 

To the extent possible during the pandemic, they find volunteers willing to go in person to the hub site and provide masked assistance. The rest of the time they work online. A key benefit is keeping in touch with teachers at the public schools where the children are enrolled, to track their assignments and progress and to target any weak spots. 

HPRP volunteers may serve as tutors in English and other skills; or as mentors, troubleshooting in various practical areas, negotiating bureaucracies, cutting red tape. A Working Group meets weekly — typically 10 or 12 at the table — to discuss administrative matters including publicity and fund-raising. A subcommittee is exploring opportunities for grants, and will soon be writing applications. 

As a bonus, HPRP offers membership in an internal book club just for volunteers. Pytel said she finds much inspiration — not to mention practical tips — in reading about people elsewhere who are doing the same kind of work. 

The potential to bring in new families creates an intense demand for volunteers. “Our greatest need is for a core group of very committed volunteers to assist a brand-new family. So much has to go on, particularly during the first year of resettlement.” The key is to have a lot of flexibility, so that you can be available when you’re really needed. 

“This is the hardest kind of volunteer to find,” Pytel said, but for those who have the time “it’s also the most rewarding work to do. You put in a lot of time and energy… but you really feel the impact you’re having on people’s lives. 

“When you volunteer, you think you’re giving…. And then at some point you realize you’re getting out more than you put in. You’re learning from these people’s experience.” Such relationships often evolve into lasting personal friendships. “The volunteer walks away feeling blessed.” 

The goal of the winter fund-raiser is $30,000. Watch this video for more details, and go online to donate or volunteer.

Originally published in the Hyde Park Herald on December 7, 2020 by Andrea Holliday, contributing writer

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