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New SOE, community partnership designed to help improve lives of refugees in Virginia
Dr. Julie Gorlewski speaks during a panel session

Dr. Julie Gorlewski during a Refugee Care Coummunity panel session

For many, the United States represents a land of opportunity, and with good reason: each year, more than a million new immigrants arrive to call the country home.

Of these, more than 2,000 refugees relocate to Virginia every year, hailing from countries as wide-ranging as Iraq, Colombia, Ethiopia and Cuba.

While this influx of different cultures and languages helps create the wealth of diversity America is known for, it also creates challenges in terms of education.

The number of English language learners in Virginia, for example, has risen 37 percent in the last eight years, and now represents 10 percent of the state’s entire K-12 student population.

Yet while the overall on-time graduation rate for Virginia students rose to 90.5 percent in 2015, the rate for English language learners fell to just 68 percent. All told, one out of every four English language learner students in Virginia drops out.

These statistics are exactly the situation a new partnership between the VCU School of Education and a handful of local community groups is looking to address. Calling themselves the Refugee Care Community, the organization provides a variety of services, including education assistance, to help newly-arrived families settle in the Richmond/Henrico County area.

“[Refugees] want to become productive citizens, and they have the potential for great contribution,” Anna Lou Schaberg, who helped co-found the group along with CrossOver Healthcare Ministry’s Lynn Williams and Julia Bilodeau, said. “They just need a helping hand.”

"Engaging with the global community [like this] is the kind of networking that helps us all grow.” – Dr. Julie Gorlewski

“One of the biggest challenges refugees face is culture shock: things that seem simple to us become very complicated when you don’t know the cultural norms,” Dr. Julie Gorlewski, chair of the Department of Teaching and Learning, said. “This support group provides assistance with everything from finding housing to getting enrolled in schools in order to help refugees negotiate the loss of contact with their home culture.”

To that end, the group, which includes representatives from VCU, the Virginia Nonprofit Housing Coalition, Henrico County Welcome Center, CrossOver Healthcare Ministry and the Sacred Heart Center, has begun hosting working luncheons every month.

To date, nearly 100 people, representing 37 different nonprofit agencies, have attended these luncheons.

Each meeting centers around a major theme, such as adult education or refugee health, and typically features panel discussions as well as small group breakout sessions.

In addition to encouraging dialogue, one of the major goals of these meetings is efficiency: consolidating and making the best use of limited local resources available to support refugees.

“We learn from each other what the needs are,” Gorlewski said. “For example, our recent discussions have highlighted a huge gap in services for the late adolescent age group. So these meetings allow us to be strategic about the work we are doing.”

The Refugee Care Community also helps uncover innovative ways to help refugee students continue to develop literacy in their native language — a skill that research has shown to be critical to English language learners’ success.

While this can pose a challenge, given the wide range of refugees’ home countries, resources can often be found right around the corner.

“People in the community can be more helpful [to refugees] than you might think,” Gorlewski said. “For example, our local library might be able to engage with a library in, say, Afghanistan, and get access to books and other learning materials for refugees.

The Refugee Care Community meetings allow participants to share resources, articles and other helpful information

The Refugee Care Community meetings allow participants to share resources, articles and other helpful information.

“Engaging with the global community like that is the kind of networking that helps us all grow.”

VCU’s involvement with the Refugee Care Community actually sprung from an alumna. Schaberg, the group’s co-founder, received her M.Ed. from the School of Education in 1970, and currently serves on its Advancement Council.

“I’ve been very impressed with Dr. [Andrew] Daire’s interest in community engagement,” Schaberg said. “I knew he and the School of Education faculty would be interested in this opportunity, and it has been wonderful to have them at the table. So many refugee issues are centered around education, so it’s a natural connection.”

“It has been wonderful working with Anna Lou on this project,” Gorlewski said. “She’s been very smart and very strategic about the group’s work, and really brought people together for the good of the community.”

In addition to Gorlewski and Schaberg, the School of Education’s Susan Watson (doctoral student), Barbara Gibson (co-director of The Literary Institute), Misti Wajciechowski (assistant professor in the Department of Teaching and Learning), and Dr. Debbie Speece (associate dean for research and faculty development) have all also been active in the Refugee Care Community.

“I’ve just been so impressed with the dedication and passion of this group,” Gorlewski said. “It requires a little bit of a leap of faith: it’s like we’re making a path while we’re walking on it. But that’s what I think education is about — possibilities. So it’s really exciting to be a part of.”