Stephanie Dawkins first began working with resettling refugees while interning with Catholic Charities in 2004, when she was pursuing a degree in social work at the University of Texas in Arlington. Three years ago, she and her husband, a professor at Northern Illinois University, moved to DeKalb, and she began working for World Relief of DuPage/Aurora.
According to World Relief communications manager Jennifer Stocks, the faith-based nonprofit organization has offices in the U.S. and six other countries. Its main purpose is to resettle refugees. “Our goal is self-sufficiency,” she said. “These folks have left behind everything. It really is a person starting over.”
“It makes me proud to be an American because the U.S. is part of this international community that are willing to resettle the refugees,” Dawkins said. “This is a faith-based, nonprofit group, but we don’t proselytize.”
Dawkins is responsible for integrating refugee children into American education and culture, including helping them learn to speak English. She talked with MidWeek reporter Doug Oleson about her work.
MidWeek: What is your title?
Stephanie Dawkins: I am the youth services manager. We have two offices, in Wheaton and Aurora, but I primarily work in the Aurora office. Our office is two people, but we often have volunteers and interns. Thank God for interns.
My duties include acting as a liaison between schools and refugee families, enrolling new kids in school, overseeing another staff person, interns and volunteers, orientating parents, running after-school programs for high school refugee students as well as summer enrichment programs, and working with local churches who host events for students.
MW: How many children do you serve in a given year?
SD: About 75 to 80. They come from all over the world, but the three main countries we get clients from are Bhutan – the most – Myanmar – the second most – and Iraq. We anticipate, in the future, getting more from the DRC, the Congo.
It’s very political. Every year the president will announce how many refugees our country will accept.
MW: Do they come here in groups or as families?
SD: Mostly they come in families. Occasionally, we’ll get unaccompanied minors. We get 160 to 180 in a year, just for the Aurora office. It’s more like 500 to 600 in a year for both offices.
We get families on a regular basis throughout the year. Some weeks we might not have anyone. Another week, we may get 15 to 20.
MW: What are some of the services you provide for the refugees?
SD: We find out family information before they come. Then we’ll send a staff person or volunteer to pick them up at the airport and find them an apartment. ...We also provide ESL for adults and a job class.
MW: Do most refugees speak English?
SD: It varies. Some people have pretty good skills, some a little, some none.
MW: I imagine it’s a pretty big cultural shock for them.
SD: Yes, it really is. They may have been running from one place to another, living in temporary places where they aren’t wanted. A lot of the time, the refugees in a camp aren’t allowed to leave.
We find our clients to be very resilient. They almost all find and keep jobs. It’s pretty remarkable that they can find jobs. ...Some go on to college.
MW: What kind of people are they?
SD: They come from a variety of backgrounds. Some are very educated and some have only had education through the fifth grade. Some have been living in camps for 20 years. They don’t have electricity and don’t know how to pay bills or how to drive. There is so much they have to learn. You feel responsible for teaching them to learn well. It definitely makes it interesting.
MW: Is there ever a chance they can return to their home countries?
SD: They really don’t have a lot of choice in the matter. They can’t go home to their home country because it’s very dangerous. The reasons they have to live here is because they are persecuted in their home country.
They all come to the country legally, on a refugee visa. After a year, they will get a green card. After five years, if they can pass the citizenship test, they become U.S. citizens. The tests are in English. That’s a big motivating factor for them to learn English, so they can become citizens.
MW: Do you have a lot of success?
SD: I think the success is of people being integrated so well. They are not in danger anymore, so that’s a success. They are not running for their lives. The interesting thing is it’s not that far away. The other side of the world has come to our world.
MW: How does this affect you?
SD: I am really inspired by the families I work with and their resiliency and their excitement to become Americans. It’s challenging, but it’s inspiring that these people can come to the U.S. and find a new home.
The fact that they can come to the U.S. and build futures, it’s exciting to be a part of that. It makes me proud to be an American because the U.S. is part of this international community and they are willing to resettle the refugees.
MW: Do you like your job?
SD: I love it because I feel we are able to make both a global and local impact. We work with people from all over the world, but are doing it in Aurora.
MW: What do you think of DeKalb?
SD: I really love living in DeKalb. It’s my first time in the Midwest. I just love the little downtown. It’s a really nice community. We found a church here.