African refugee youth in Dayton networking with Pan-African students at Earlham College.Photo: AFSC
In the winter of 2007, rumors were circulating that the boarded-up house adjacent to the Dayton AFSC office was being occupied by immigrants. Staff, however, saw no signs of life until the beginning of spring when Migwe Kimemia, the Africa Peace and Immigration Program Director, spotted children playing outside.
Kimemia was able to communicate with them in Swahili and learned that the rumors were true: a family of African refugees, including nine children, was, in fact, dwelling there. The stove was broken, gas was leaking, and they were in this dangerous situation because they felt powerless and ignorant about their rights.
As Kimemia learned more, he came to realize that this is a widespread problem.
Prior to being resettled, many of these African refugees, originally from Burundi, had been raising families and growing up in Tanzanian refugee camps since 1972 where they had no access to basic education. They were then moved to Dayton where they are supposed to secure work and enroll their children in English-speaking schools upon arrival. Under the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Policy, they have a mere eight months to become self-sufficient, after which all aid is withdrawn. With no skills and little guidance on how to navigate the system, these refugees find themselves dropping out of school, in homeless shelters or under the grip of slum landlords, jobless, destitute, scared, and isolated.
AFSC is working to change this by connecting the refugees with one another and creating a community amongst them. AFSC has sponsored a community festival for the families in which over 120 Africans came to celebrate their culture at a park where parents could speak to each other in their native languages and the children could play their favorite sport: soccer. Dialogues are also being facilitated on cultural differences and human rights to cultivate a culture of friendship and hospitality. Other community actions involve pressuring the Dayton School Board to fully fund and staff the English as a second language program and address the academic achievement gap for refugee children.
Immediate needs are important, so AFSC co-founded the Coalition for Asylee and Refugee Empowerment, which is composed of Dayton-area community service providers and advocates.
However, what sets AFSC apart is its focus on addressing the critical need to educate these communities on their rights, advocating for them to receive the tools they need to succeed in school and in getting affordable housing, and helping them discover the power they have within themselves to pursue their dreams individually and collectively.
Not only have the boards been replaced with real windows in the home housing a family of Burundi immigrants near the AFSC office, but the parents and children are participating in AFSC programs. Through this, they have found a supportive community, their own voice, and new hope for their futures.