By KEVIN PROFT/ecoRI News staff
PROVIDENCE — Refugees resettled in Rhode Island often arrive with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Some, having feared for their and their family’s immediate safety, may have fled their homes hastily; others may have had time to pack some personal belongings. Few, if any, arrive here with the means to begin a new life in a new country.
Refugees, displaced by conflicts across the globe, can live in refugee camps for two decades before being resettled. Even in best-case scenarios, refugees resettled in the United States live in refugee camps for 18 months after applying for refugee status, because of the rigors of the U.N. and U.S. vetting and resettlement process.
“The Syrian refugees coming to the United States now are people who applied for refugee status two years ago,” said Brandon Lozeau, community relations manager at the Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island (DIIRI). “The people from Syria you see on TV probably haven’t even applied for refugee status yet.”
Lozeau said the public’s perception is that millions of refugees are flooding into the country annually, but in reality the United States only resettled 70,000 refugees in 2015. “We are talking about less than half of what we used to resettle after the Vietnam War,” he said.
DIIRI helps newly arrived refugees transition to their new environment. Each refugee is assigned a case manager who, among other responsibilities, furnishes an apartment for the refugee prior to his or her arrival. Furniture, food and other essentials are provided to the refugee for free.
Lina Bravo, Clothing Collaborative coordinator at DIIRI, manages a variety of programs that provide refugees with new and lightly used donated goods at no cost. Operating out of the basement of DIIRI’s headquarters on Elmwood Avenue, Bravo and her team have turned a large, nondescript room into a pleasant, department-store-style space where refugees browse racks and shelves for clothing and products that meet their needs.
The Clothing Collaborative has existed for 20 years, and has been managed by DIIRI for the past decade. The program accepts donations of new and lightly used professional attire for low-income Rhode Islanders and refugees. Sixty agencies, including the Genesis Center, Amos House and Crossroads Rhode Island, refer clients to the collaborative to ensure they are well dressed for job interviews. The Clothing Collaborative assists more than 1,000 job-seekers annually at its Providence location, while hubs in East Providence, Warwick, Woonsocket and Westerly boost the number of people helped.
Lozeau said the Clothing Collaborative, like DIIRI’s job-training and education programs, helps clients develop confidence so they can project their best selves at interviews. “Confidence is a barrier,” he said.
“You can tell how happy our clients are and how good they feel when they put on a suit that looks really nice," Lozeau said. "They have not had the opportunity to get dressed up for a while because of where they are coming from, so it brings back the hope that there is going to be more of this, and that there are going to be better things to come."
Sharing the room with the Clothing Collaborative is the Refugee Resource Center. This refugee-specific program provides refugees with a broader range of high-need items such as toiletries, casual clothing, shoes, kitchenware, linens, and children’s clothing and toys. Unlike the Clothing Collaborative, which limits people to seven items every three months, refugees may take as many items from the resource center as they need.
In an adjacent room, about 300 donated coats were wracked and waiting for new owners during ecoRI News’ recent visit. The number swells to 600 coats in the winter, but, according to Bravo, refugees from desert or tropical climates want coats even in Rhode Island's warmer months.
DIIRI receives direct donations, donations from clothing drives sponsored by churches, organizations and employers, and donations from businesses. The Hilton Garden Inn, for example, replaces its linens three times annually and pillows annually; these lightly used items end up in the Refugee Resource Center.
“We try to make the area beautiful and set it up so it feels like a shopping experience,” Bravo said of her subterranean domain.
Transportation, like having appropriate work attire, is a hurdle refugees must overcome to establish themselves in their communities and places of employment. Generally, refugees rely on the bus and their feet for transportation, but sometimes these modes of transit aren't enough. If bus service isn’t available at the beginning or end of a night shift, or doesn’t serve an employer’s location frequently, it can mean the difference between getting a job or remaining unemployed.
For many refugees, bicycles offer a solution to their transportation problems. DIIRI, recognizing the important role bike ownership can play for refugees, partners with Recycle-A-Bike. Together, the organizations hold events that teach refugees how to wear helmets and use bike locks, and raffle off donated bicycles.
Lozeau said DIIRI doesn’t receive enough bike donations to provide one for each client, but that those who win a bike feel as though they’ve won the lottery. When bicycles are donated, DIIRI reserves some for situations where clients need them to get to and from work. Bikes are an inexpensive mode of transportation that allows refugees and low-income people to integrate into the economy and support their families, Lozeau said.
In addition to donations from Recycle-A-Bike, other groups also make bike donations, such as Women’s Physicians for Humanity, which donated about 15 new bicycles last March.