A caseworker’s role in the refugee journey
Jennifer Glassmyer remembers vividly the first time she greeted a refugee family at the Seattle airport. “They were Somali, the mother was single and pregnant and traveling with her four children, one of whom has disabilities. They’d never flown before, and we were nervous about how they would get through Customs. I was standing at baggage claim with a woman who was a friend of theirs from the refugee camp where they’d lived for years in Kenya, but they hadn’t seen each other in maybe five years. It took a long time, but as soon as they came through the door the two women ran across the room and hugged and started speaking to each other in Somali. Even though I didn’t know what they were saying, it was incredibly emotional for everyone involved.”
Jennifer works for Jewish Family Service (JFS) of Seattle, one of many nonprofits that receives refugee clients from nine national agencies that work with the State Department. The American Jewish community has a long history of supporting displaced populations because — as the JFS website explains it — “our community understands what it is like to leave one’s home and resettle in a foreign land.”
JFS is also an Open Homes partner, collaborating with Airbnb hosts to offer refugees free temporary housing in the Seattle area. We sat down with Jennifer to talk about her work, learn more about the refugee journey, and how she’s been inspired — in her words — “to use the privilege of being an American citizen to assist people who aren’t.”
A cross-cultural background
Jennifer’s interest in working with refugees dates back to high school, when she spent a year abroad in Belgium. “It was immediately striking to me how many refugees from North Africa and the Middle East were there — it was a hot topic in 2012. The anti-immigrant sentiment that existed there was really surprising.“ After returning to the US, she attended the University of Washington, and — motivated by her experience in Belgium — chose to be part of a task force on the Syrian refugee crisis. It turned out that working with refugees was “a convergence of law and sociology and languages — all the things I enjoy and am passionate about.” That task force provided her intro to JFS, where she’s worked more than two years as a case manager and pre-arrival coordinator.
Working with refugees
A caseworker assists refugees for the first three months they’re in the country, and JFS is assigned resettlement clients by the US State Department. “Three months may seem really short,” says Jennifer, “Because it is! So a big part of what we’re doing is connecting people with the many services — medical care, education, housing — that they need to stabilize long term.” Caseworkers help people to enroll in ESL (English as a second language) programs, health insurance, school and day care for their children, and guide them on the path to employment — all systems that would be difficult to navigate alone in a new country.
How does Open Homes help?
Although setting families up for long-term stability is a caseworker’s ultimate goal, temporary housing can play a key role in a refugee’s journey. “It can be extremely difficult to have permanent housing lined up before everybody arrives, and in the past our only temporary option was a hotel, which is very expensive. [The Open Homes] partnership has been a huge blessing to us already,” both by defraying the costs of temporary housing and giving newly arrived refugees a homey place to land. A kitchen to cook in or a yard where kids can play makes a meaningful difference in a refugee’s earliest days of transition.
Jennifer states that JFS “has had an overwhelmingly positive experience so far with all of the [Open Homes] hosts,” explaining that some “have hosted refugees in the past, and this is a cause that they’re really passionate about.” That said, there’s no experience necessary to be an Open Homes host, and our partners take an active role in the entire stay. Case managers from JFS (or another of Airbnb’s agency partners) initiate the process — messaging with potential hosts and finalizing booking details — and serve as the primary (often daily) point of contact for refugee guests for the duration of a stay.
For people who aren’t able to open their homes but would still like to act locally, there are other ways to contribute to the refugee community. Options vary by region, ranging from in-kind donations to mentorship opportunities to volunteer hours, so Jennifer suggests doing internet research on the resettlement agencies that serve your community and then asking directly about how to help.
Reflecting on the the ways in which working with refugees has affected her own perspective, Jennifer states, “As someone who was born and raised in the United States and then began working with the refugee population in my 20s, it’s been really valuable in shaping how I view the world. I’ve learned to have a mindset of wanting to get to know more about other people, which I think is what fosters community.”
Finally, “this work has also taught me a lot about how I can use my privilege of being an American citizen to assist people who aren’t. I don’t think we often think about our citizenship as a privilege, but it really, really is. It’s been eye-opening for me to learn that, and to compare [my situation] to people who are working so hard to become citizens when it’s just something I was born into. There’s nothing I had to do to gain my citizenship, and so it’s given me more respect for my civic duty and the effect that I can have on the country as a whole.”
Illustration by Courtney Brendle