RISSE-ing up to assist refugees in Albany

By Christian Vischi*
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For refugees, coming to the United States doesn't always feel like a trip to the land of milk and honey.

Although governmental agencies like the U.S. Committee on Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) facilitates the resettlement of refugees, there are many issues that fall through the cracks: English instruction, child care, assistance with paperwork, and social orientation and education.

Amidst this new chaos, there is a beacon of light for refugees in the Albany area in a relatively young program called RISSE.

The Rev. Holly Nye, pastor of the Emmaus United Methodist Church of Albany, serves part-time as the development director for the Refugee and Immigrant Support Services-Emmaus, Inc. (RISSE).

She recounted that the program was founded in 2007, under then church pastor the Rev. Denise Stringer, by several members of the congregation that were already involved in helping to resettle refugees arriving in Albany. As volunteers through USCRI and through their contact with newcomer families, "they quickly realized that there are great needs beyond what USCRI and government agencies can provide," she said.

Among those needs are long-term English instruction, child care and education/school support for children, assistance with paperwork and medical/school/social service systems, and social/civic orientation and education, among others.

Nye more fully described those needs in a recent grant application.

"RISSE seeks to support and empower refugee and immigrant families as they learn about and become integrated into U.S. society. RISSE provides after-school and summer programs for children, and a range of social and educational services for their families. Based in a neighborhood church building, the program draws on the resources of colleges, community agencies, the school district, church denominational structures, and neighboring faith communities to provide families a full range of services and interactions with their new community.

"RISSE had its roots in small-scale volunteer efforts in partnership with the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.  Through these interactions, members of the church realized that refugees need support to work toward self-sufficiency, reaching beyond the six months typically provided by federal and state agencies.  The most urgent needs include job counseling, help navigating paperwork and social welfare systems, and English instruction and educational support for children."

By the numbers

In the past four years, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has reported a significant increase of U.S.-resettled refugees from 41,000 in 2006 to nearly 75,000 refugees in 2009. Of the 4,400 that were settled in New York in 2009, over 60 percent of them came from either Bhutan or Burma.

One significant issue there is that the governing powers in Bhutan and Burma have recently attempted to create a unified country at the expense of current culture groups already living there. Some of these groups are unwilling or unable to exist with these governing powers, and due to murder, threat and economic strangle-holds they are forced to take-up new roots in refugee camps and - when able - refuge in other countries, like the U.S.

Given that context, Nye said "RISSE is an important way that the UMC lives out the UNYAC vision:  '…to live the gospel of Jesus Christ and to be God’s love with our neighbors in all places.' Emmaus UMC embodies that vision. This small congregation saw a need among its neighbors and reached out.

"They not only formed - and recently incorporated - this new agency, they also experienced God transforming the life of the congregation. Emmaus is now a multi-language, multi-cultural congregation, with a rich and praise-filled worship life. The people of Emmaus may have a lot to teach other congregations about reaching beyond our comfort zones and learning to live and worship together across our differences."

In just four years, RISSE has grown to include a summer immersion program for children, a daily educational after-school program, adult English as a Second Language classes in partnership with the school district, and a range of support services for adults. But RISSE achieves this diverse programming with very little funding, said Nye.

"Our annual budget provides for programming, food and supplies for educational programs, transportation and upkeep of a van, and salaries for professional leadership, a staff of part-time teachers, a part-time social work assistant, and several support staff.

"A fortunate location near two colleges brings an ample flow of volunteers who support the educational aspects of the programming in particular.  Art students, musicians, teachers-in-training, and professors in these disciplines bring their gifts to the work with our families. A network of faith communities throughout the region provides supplies, volunteers and some financial support."

Since the program's inception, RISSE has received grant funding from general agencies of The United Methodist Church and conference-level support.

Offering Support

Each year, World Refugee Day is celebrated on June 20. According to the United Methodist Committee on Relief, "it looks at the challenges and hopes that accompany refugees in their search for a new home through voluntary repatriation, local integration or resettlement."

On June 19, churches across the denomination will celebrate World Refugee Day with an offering. Donations to RISSE can be made with a memo notation of "Global Ministries Advance #3021057".

For more information about RISSE or to give online, visit their Global Ministries webpage.

Nye said congregations across the conference can also "research and learn where refugees may be settling in their own regions – certainly there are refugee communities in Utica and Syracuse, and possibly elsewhere in Upper New York. United Methodists can gather and learn about how truly multi-cultural our region is becoming, and can begin to learn ways to help others settle here.  And they can learn to be in community with all our neighbors."

*Christian Vischi is the communications associate for the Upper New York Annual Conference. He can be reached at christianvischi@unyumc.org.