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Refugee Family Services: Long-Haul Support for the New American Dream

For more than 20 years, Refugee Family Services (RFS) has served the metro Atlanta refugee community, helping families integrate and achieve self-sufficiency through education initiatives, community support programs, and civic engagement, with a dedicated focus on women and children. The organization also holds a unique position as refugee advocates, clueing in average Atlanta citizens on the assets that refugees bring with them and their potential for practical, positive impact in the community.

In a recent interview with GCN, Refugee Family Services Executive Director Emily Pelton shared insights into their current programs, new initiatives, and their successful efforts to seed new, self-sufficient refugee community organizations.

Each year, RFS directly serves more than 2,000 refugee women and children, as one of seven area resettlement agencies in the metro Atlanta area covering the 2,500-3,000 refugees entering Georgia every year. Six of these focus on the initial steps—securing housing and ensuring the correct services are in place. RFS complements their work by committing to the long haul, assisting with employment opportunities, educational support, and other long-term goals set by refugees and their families. RFS is involved with women and children in three primary areas: training women in valuable work and life skills, assisting youth from age zero all the way through high school, and building more, smaller, self-sustaining community organizations, which Pelton says is a growing priority and source of pride both within RFS and among the families they serve.

Programs and Partnerships

Currently in its fourth year, RFS’s Pre-Kindergarten program is the only Pre-K program in the Southeast designed specifically for refugee children. This year, it’s prepared more than 20 children from all over the world, with varying languages and cultures, to thrive in an American school system. Once kids enter school, RFS’s School Liaison Program provides them with an advocate/interpreter to make the direct connection between parents and school, aiding in communication, problem solving and cultural questions, while also arming parents with the skills to help kids keep learning at home. “It’s a great point of entry for parents to get involved in culture, meet people, and feel as if they have a role here,” said Pelton.

RFS complements [other organizations’] work by committing to the long haul, assisting with employment opportunities, educational support, and other long-term goals set by refugees and their families.

One of Emily’s favorite success stories is Ram’s. Originally from Nepal, Ram came to America, and RFS, as a 14-year-old, unable to speak the language but eager to succeed. With hard work and RFS support, he excelled in school and applied for a competitive Posse Foundation scholarship—a long shot, but one that almost connected: Ram was a finalist, but didn’t make the ultimate cut.  Coming so close, however, only increased his determination and confidence - the next year, he applied for an even-more-competitive Gates Millennium Scholarship and won a full, four-year ride at any college or university he got into. Ram is currently studying pre-med at Georgia Tech and giving back by helping others in his community.

“Our counselors made sure he followed through and made it to every interview,” said Pelton. “For refugee kids, and high schoolers especially, there’s a lot of pressure to do a lot fast: learn the language, get schooled, get a job. We’re there to make sure they know they can do it.” The summertime is just as busy for the organization’s youth programs, which include a summer camp for refugee students grades one through six. The women’s program offers year-round support in family literacy, financial literacy, fire and home safety, domestic abuse prevention, and a Parents-as-Teachers initiative that provides in-home parenting training.

Besides the practical work that goes into creating refugee success stories, a significant part of RFS’s work is sharing those stories through outreach and publicity. A recent grant from The Community Foundation’s Nonprofit Toolbox program gave RFS the funds to work with Mixte Consulting on new a new branding platform that should translate to greater visibility and increased yearly giving—RFS already rebranded their annual Taste of the World fundraiser, held at Zoo Atlanta, two years ago, turning it into a gala event that bumped up their revenues considerably, drawing 300 attendees to the 2012 event and netting RFS $65,000.

Pelton calls the new branding measures, recently approved by the board, “a big step forward.” Pelton wants to make sure the message of RFS comes through loud and clear in the stories of the refugee women and children they work with, stories that showcase “how resilient, hardworking, and capable” their clients are.

“For refugee kids, and high schoolers especially, there’s a lot of pressure to do a lot fast: learn the language, get schooled, get a job. We’re there to make sure they know they can do it.”
– ED Emily Pelton

Pelton also noted that their board has been “extremely active” is seeking out corporate sponsorships, and has recently gained and regained major partners like CNN, UPS, Georgia Power, and Fidelity Capital. “We are working really hard this year to make the statement that we’re not just up and coming, but we’re a successful Atlanta organization with support from a lot of different sources,” she said. In addition, St. Philips Cathedral just announced that RFS will be this year’s beneficiary for its 42nd annual Cathedral Antiques Show, being held in January 2013. Pelton called it a “very big deal for us”—so big, it’ll push back their own Taste the World fundraiser. “We’re certainly going to be playing a very big role in the Antique Show,” said Pelton. “We’ll be absolutely committed to making that event a success.”

Through these valuable partnerships, RFS is increasing the community’s stake in the lives of its newest, and in some cases most vulnerable, members. “Of course it’s a dramatic story to tell where any individual refugee may have come from,” said Pelton. “These are people with livelihoods, homes, businesses, who may have, in one day, lost everything. But we’re really trying to move into the good news that happens when they get here, share the excitement of the work and contributions that are coming from the refugee community. And you can see the progress—just look at Buford Highway.

“This is a group of people who are incredibly dedicated to becoming contributing Americans. It’s something we can all share in and be proud of throughout the metro area.”

Having secured new partnerships and a share of some highly sought-after federal grant money, RFS has also launched what may be its most innovative and powerful initiative yet, the Refugee Organizing in Action Collaborative, designed to help refugees start and maintain their own community organizations, and serve as a central hub of support. Through this program, refugees create their own civic infrastructure and fundraising initiatives while organizing and delivering services themselves. Working with the Buthanese Community of Georgia and the Somali-American Community Center, RFS has helped the state’s largest refugee populations as they have moved ahead to create groups like the Bhutanese Artists of Georgia, Somali Community Radio, and the Burmese Chin Community of Atlanta.

Connecting with the Cause

The message of RFS comes through loud and clear in the stories of the refugee women and children they work with, stories that showcase “how resilient, hardworking, and capable” their clients are.

Pelton has dedicated her professional life to nonprofits. During a six-year stint at CARE, she was involved in fundraising, policy work, and international travel, where she was able to meet refugees “on the other side of the ocean.” After developing her strengths at CARE, Pelton spent five years as an independent nonprofit consultant. When she decided to get back into nonprofit management full-time, her job search coincided with an invitation to join the board at RFS. At the time, she didn’t realize that just two weeks after interviewing and touring the facility with the retiring executive director, she would be sitting in his chair. “I hadn’t been seeking the job, but it spoke to me,” she said. “I spent many years at CARE learning about the compelling needs of people in developing countries all over the world. As I got to know more about the work of RFS, I realized that refugees who come to our community in Atlanta still have those same challenges and capabilities, so my experience turned out to be relevant.”

Over the course of two years at RFS, Pelton said she’s had to pull out “all the tools in her toolbox” in order to maximize the impact and position of the organization. “There is so much we can offer—and also so much we can learn from people with such amazing life experiences,” she said. “It’s gratifying work because refugees have a great drive to work and contribute, and our task is simply to help them tap into their strengths and equip them to succeed.”

Breauna Hagan is Communications Coordinator at the Georgia Center for Nonprofits.

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