Celebrating the Volunteer State

Now more than ever we are stronger together. Time and time again, this period of social distancing is defined not by isolation, but by the generous giving of encouragement, resources, and time.

This week we recognize with our partners in refugee resettlement the volunteers for whom no challenge is too great. The tireless efforts of volunteers across Tennessee to protect the most vulnerable among us and to provide support for essential workers are building stronger, healthier communities. Stories of neighbors making face masks for essential workers, donating necessary cleaning supplies to nonprofit organizations, and delivering groceries to the doorsteps of those who cannot leave their homes are flooding in.

It is not just unusual times, however, that call people to giving their personal resources and energy. Volunteers have a vital role in resettlement. Tennesseans have given their time to drive refugees to appointments or to be conversation partners to help them practice English. They have donated basic household necessities so refugee families can move into furnished apartments as soon as they arrive in the United States, and they have served as mentors to help their neighbors navigate their new home and community.

In Knoxville, a young man volunteers his skills as a photographer and strategic marketer for the local resettlement agency. In Memphis, residents of an assisted living home offer their time weekly to help older refugees practice English. In Nashville, donations are pouring in to contribute to financial relief for those affected by tornadoes or COVID-19. In Chattanooga, a father and son transport heavy furniture donations to furnish apartments.

Connect with our partners to celebrate with them the volunteers of Tennessee and to learn how you can help. Integration into the community and financial stability are necessary for refugees and other immigrants to live self-sufficient lives, but people like you are what makes Tennessee home.

Hard times are still ahead as we navigate the health and economic difficulties presented by COVID-19, and we will stand together to face these challenges. The Tennessee Office for Refugees team is proud to serve the Volunteer State.

Tennessee Welcomes Refugees

The number of refugees who will be admitted into the United States in Fiscal Year 2020 is lower than it has ever been. The Presidential Determination sets this fiscal year’s annual ceiling for refugee arrivals at only 18,000, a drastic decrease in an already downward trend in the past four years.

An Executive Order published the same day as the Presidential Determination has the power to further inhibit refugee programs’ ability to assist refugees attain self-sufficiency. The Executive Order requires state and local authorities to submit their agreement to accept the initial placement of refugees. Traditionally, refugees who are admitted into the United States are placed with a local resettlement agency which assists them to quickly attain self-sufficiency and become contributing members of their community. This year, however, if states do not take steps to affirm their humanitarian commitments and desire to help new Americans become contributing community members, refugees will be assumed unwelcome and turned away. The Tennessee Refugee Program is administered by Catholic Charities through its Tennessee Office for Refugees, so the task of resettlement does not rest upon the state.Refugee and SIV Arrivals in U.S. and Annual Ceilings

What is the Tennessee Office for Refugees doing? 

Since the issuance of the Presidential Determination and Executive Order, the Tennessee Office for Refugees has reached out to Governor Lee to answer any questions he may have about refugee resettlement in Tennessee. We are also working with each resettlement agency to communicate with their local authorities and answer questions, provide data, and educate them about how refugees contribute to their new communities. Even in this time of uncertainty, resettlement agencies continue to serve refugees, community members continue to seek ways to support their local resettlement agencies, and refugees continue to flourish in the country they now call home.

What can you do?

  1. If you support refugee resettlement in Tennessee, it is important to let Governor Lee know! Call, write, or tweet to make your voice heard. Tennessee Immigrant & Refugee Rights Coalition provides a helpful form letter.
  2. Contact your local elected officials to let them know their constituents support refugee resettlement. 

Chattanooga City Mayor, Andy Berke
(423) 643-7800

Hamilton County Mayor, Jim Coppinger
(423) 209-6100
Email: http://www.hamiltontn.gov/Mayor/form.aspx

Knoxville City Mayor, Madeline Rogero
(865) 215-2040

Knox County Mayor, Glenn Jacobs
(865) 215-2005
Email: https://knoxcounty.org/email/email_new.php?email_name=county.mayor
Memphis City Mayor, Jim Strickland
(901) 636-6000
Shelby County Mayor, Lee Harris
(901) 222-2000
Nashville Metro Mayor, John Cooper
(615) 862-6000

  1. Reach out to your local resettlement agency to volunteer or provide other support. There are five resettlement agencies in Tennessee:

Catholic Charities of Tennessee, Inc.
(615) 259-3567

Nashville International Center for Empowerment
(615) 315-9681

Bridge Refugee Services
(423) 954-1911
Bridge Refugee Services
(865) 540-1311

World Relief
(901) 341-0220

  1. The GRACE Act is a proposed bill that will increase the annual refugee admissions floor to 95,000, the average refugee admissions goal set by previous presidents. Call Representative Cohen & Senator Blackburn to let them know that Tennesseans stand behind the GRACE Act.
  2. Share these actions with others!

Program Highlight: CCTN’s Hospitality Training

Pictured: Ivan Monterroza, Director of Housekeeping at Hutton Hotel and Brenda Jennifer Aronda Gurrvora, training participant

There are many reasons for individuals to seek employment in the hospitality industry, highest of which are job availability and advancement opportunity. Tourism generates 176,500 jobs for Tennesseans and produces $1.7 billion in state and local tax revenue according to the TN Department of Tourist Development. There are roughly 357 hotels in the metropolitan Nashville area, and 117 new hotels in production, as reported by a 2018 Tennessean article. The jobs are available and employers are seeking qualified employees as is illustrated with their involvement in the Hospitality Training Program.

Ivan Monterroza, Director of Housekeeping at Hutton Hotel, stated it takes $3,300-$3,500 to bring on a new employee into the hospitality workforce and there is approximately a 26% turnover in the industry. That is an incredible expense that can be reduced by investing with non-profits and other hotel partners in training. Thanks to the training that Catholic Charities of Tennessee in Nashville (CCTN) is providing at no cost, employers can invest a day’s time leading a training session and result in someone ready to commit to a hospitality position who needs less on-boarding time and effort.

CCTN leads the Hospitality Training Program for newly arrived refugees and community members who have an interest in the hospitality industry. The Hospitality Training Program is done in partnership with 11 hotels in the Nashville area, the Refugee and Immigrant Services Department of CCTN, and McGruder Family Resource Center. Through the partnership of these entities, volunteer time, and donated space CCTN is able to provide well trained staff for the hospitality workforce, reducing the expense on employers in employee turnover, and preparing individuals for their chosen industry.

Pictured: The Hospitality Training Room at McGruder Family Resource Center

The Hospitality Training Program is a five day experience – starting with classroom information on personal grooming, harassment rules, and safety training; physical training on housekeeping in a staged hotel room, shadowing a housekeeper in a partner hotel; and ending with a test and a meeting about placement in a partner hotel. Each training day is led by a different hotel partner (2-3 partners a week). The training takes place once a month and is limited to 10 participants each round to allot for quality training for each participant. Participants come to the training through CCTN’s Refugee Employment Department and referrals from community partners: Loaves and Fishes, courts, and community. Registration is on a rolling basis. CCTN provides transportation or bus passes to the refugee clients to ensure they have access to the training. The training is provided with interpretation when necessary.

This training is an opportunity for the hotel partners not only to prepare their workforce, but also to recruit willing and capable employees. This training gives the participants the tools and the agency to decide their work environment. The participants in the Hospitality Training are not bound to housekeeping, if after the week-long training they decide not to go into the hospitality industry, Catholic Charities helps to evaluate and place them in a different job. “If not housekeeping, we try to push something else. Sometimes they may choose something at Tyson. That’s fine; we saved our partners $3,500.” Anthony Agosti commented.


How did the Hospitality Training Program start?

In 2016 Teresa Najar, then at Sheraton, noted that refugee clients were quitting or taking a long time getting trained and communicated her concerns with Anthony Agosti of Catholic Charities of Tennessee in Nashville (CCTN). In November of that year CCTN started the Hospitality Training Program with Sheraton. It was a three day training at that time, consisting of a presentation day, job-shadowing, and testing. Sheraton was the only partner at that time. CCTN had an interest in promoting the hospitality work force due to the many options available for limited English speakers. For example, in the production industry an employee may be employed at the hourly rate ceiling and have limited opportunity for growth. However, in hospitality if you are a good worker you will be promoted, even if you don’t speak English remarked Anthony Agosti.

After a few months the trainers decided to incorporate speed into the training as many hotels offer incentives for prompt task accomplishment. Another major development occurred when Alisha Haddock of the McGruder Family Resource Center offered an open room for use. Anthony stated that it took a while to acquire the furniture for the room. They were able to use the Tennessee Office for Refugees Targeted assistance Grant funding to purchase the furniture from a liquidator who had sets from Opryland Hotel in the summer of 2017. The project leads, Anthony Agosti and Alisha Haddock, then approached a variety hotel partners to be training instructors. They knew the growing tourism industry in Tennessee needed a workforce, and they just had to connect their training participants to employers.


What does the future look like for CCTN’s Hospitality Training Program?

The team is adding a certification to the training from American Lodging Hotel Education Institute. The certification is something employers will know and recognize. Anthony also commented that he sees the future of the hospitality training moving into the culinary field with the addition of culinary arts training.

How Do Agencies Help Refugees Find Jobs, and Other Important Questions…

The main priority of the Refugee Resettlement Program in the United States (other countries have different priorities) is self-sufficiency as soon as possible. All the stakeholders in this process recognize that there are many important factors to self-sufficiency including stable housing, English language training, community integration, and not least employment.

So, let’s take a few moments to talk about refugees and jobs.

  1. Agency employment staff members develop relationships with employers and with clients.

By getting to know their clients, their work histories, how much their monthly expenses are, where they live and what their transportation options are, employment staff members are able to connect each client with the best possible job.

The relationship with the employer is as important as the relationship with the client. Developing relationships with employers allows employment staff members to better understand the jobs available. This means workers will have more options as well as more realistic expectations. Those relationships also make it possible for the employer to go back to the employment staff if a placement doesn’t work out. The key to these relationships, according to one of our partners, is open communication.

  1. Agency employment staff members provide job training.

Job training usually includes an orientation to workplace expectations in the United States. Some clients have extensive work history but in a very different culture. Other clients may have no formal work experience, having been vendors or farmers in a rural system of entrepreneurship. These trainings ultimately lead to increased job retention.

Job training may provide an introduction to how to complete an application. This is usually done in the first weeks upon arrival as clients don’t yet have the necessary documents to work but have all the desire. Learning how to translate their life experiences into work histories and gaining the English skills needed to complete a job application will help clients get better jobs. Better jobs mean earlier self-sufficiency.

  1. Refugees are eager to get to work.

We often hear endearing stories of clients calling resettlement agency supervisors to complain that they haven’t been placed in jobs yet. In most of these stories, the supervisor looks into it and finds out the client has only been in the US for a few days and doesn’t yet have all the paperwork necessary to work. We also hear about refugee elders who are entitled to social security benefits, but would rather be working.

Those anecdotes are evidence of refugees’ drive to support themselves and their families. One employment specialist explained that refugees are eager to work because, “The ability to provide for one’s family and self is incredibly fulfilling and restores a sort of normalcy that is so often missing when someone arrives in a new place.”

  1. Refugees aren’t taking jobs away from anyone else.

Many of the jobs that our clients start out at are relatively low wage but very physically demanding. They may be processing vegetables or meat in a very cold environment on their feet for eight to ten hours a day. These same employers place billboards on the interstate hoping anyone will apply. The employment specialist at World Relief Memphis, Emily, explains that, “Based on the sole fact that they have fled persecution, refugees already show they are resilient and hard working.” For them, this isn’t an interim job, it’s a path to self-sufficiency with benefits and opportunities for growth.

We’ll leave you with an example:

Alina at sewing employerAlina was resettled from Ukraine through one of our partners in 2017. She got to work as quickly as possible and received very positive feedback from her employer, a small sewing company. Here are some of the words and phrases her employer used to describe her: Employer's description of Alina

Single Mom to Self-Sufficient

Here at TOR, we like to do fun stuff for our partners once in a while. So, we decided to go on an Appreciation Tour. Our stop at Bridge Refugee Services in Chattanooga was a pleasant opportunity for TOR staff who do not have the privilege of working outside our four walls to meet partner staff members. It was also a delightful chance for all of us to celebrate the victories of the last year. We were all especially moved by one simple yet powerful story.

Before being resettled to the US, Noora (pseudonym) and her infant daughter had been living in a refugee camp, where there were no jobs available. Her husband had stayed behind in Iraq, despite the danger, in order to eke out a modest living to send to Noora and baby girl.

Noora and her daughter were resettled in Chattanooga in early 2016. Bridge resettlement staff took notice of the fact Noora spoke English very well. At one time, Iraq had been a place in which education was attainable and Noora had studied English. Bridge staff knew that Noora would have more employment options because of this one skill.

Bridge staff helped Noora enroll in some basic services to ensure that they would have short-term access to food, child care, and employment services while they got back on their feet. Before long, Noora was utilizing the services of an employment agency which helped her obtain clothes appropriate for a professional work environment.

Each of the challenges Noora faced was met with determination and optimism. Noora soon found work at a cell phone store within walking distance to her apartment and child care. Her customers are other immigrants and refugees who live, as she does, nearby. She loves helping people connect with each other, getting to know her community, and supporting her family.

Noora was a young woman when she left Iraq. She was a wife and mom. She had never been employed. Now she thrives on the independence that workforce participation offers. She hopes that her husband will be able to join her in the next year.

Noora is an inspiring example of how refugees, with some local support, can become vital members of the community.

Refugees and Security

When we present information about refugee resettlement in Tennessee, we get a lot of security questions. We remind people of two things: The vetting process is detailed and thorough; and, the role of our office begins when refugees arrive in Tennessee.

A quick word about point two: We get phone calls, emails, and Facebook messages from displaced people or their loved ones asking for help. They all get the same unsatisfying response. We do not get to choose who comes to Tennessee. We always wish we could send help to the voice on the other end of the message, but that is just not how the system works.

So, what about the security vetting of refugees? There are some great resources explaining the security process. Here are some we recommend.

Refugees are the most thoroughly vetted individuals allowed into the United States. There will always be risk when we allow anyone through our borders for any reason. However, those of us who work daily with and for refugees know that the benefits outweigh the risks when it comes to welcoming the stranger – those benefits are extended not only to the families who make the US their home, but also to the communities in which they thrive. We ask that you join us by getting to know these newcomers.


Looking Back

We’ve been looking at data and outcomes for the federal fiscal year that just ended (FFY 2016) just ended. So, we wanted see how we’re doing as compared to last year (October 2014- September 2015). We’ll publish our results on FFY 2016, but until then, here are some of the highlights from FFY 2015.

  • 1578 refugees were resettled in Tennessee; 39 percent were children.
  • Refugees from Burma made up the largest group (24.6%), followed by Iraq (20.7%), Somalia (13.4%) and DR Congo (12.9%).
  • Over 70 percent of refugees resettled to Tennessee were resettled in Davidson county, while 12 percent were resettled in Shelby county, 11 percent in Knox, 5 percent in Hamilton, and 6 percent in all other counties combined.
  • 540 refugees received English language training.
  • 263 teachers and school personnel received training on refugee culture and community resources.
  • 1655 individuals received comprehensive health care screenings.
  • The average wage among refugees working full time and receiving cash assistance was $9.38.

We are proud of what our partners across the state were able to accomplish. We are privileged to serve incredibly resilient and hardworking people everyday.

Read the full report here:

How to Get Involved

With so much attention on global migration crises, refugee serving organizations have experienced an uptick in interest from potential volunteers and donors. Since the attacks in Paris we at TOR have heard from people across the state asking how they can help. A few of us who work with and for refugees put this short list of suggestions together:

1) Volunteer

Resettlement and refugee service agencies are always looking for innovative ways to best serve their clients. We all have skills, from graphic design to searching through craigslist, that are invaluable to refugee integration. If you want to see how your skill or passion fits in with an organization, email an agency to see how you can be plugged in. Additionally, dedicated volunteers are always in high demand to teach ESL or befriend a newly arrived family.

2) Support existing programs

Dig through agencies’ websites to find a need that speaks to you. Maybe you’ll choose to donate welcome packages for newly arrived refugee families, or you’ll become a resume tutor and help a highly educated refugee avoid under-employment.

3) Use your voice

Tennessee legislators listen to their constituents; your voice matters. Do two things: follow the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRRC) to stay up to date on proposed legislation and call or email your representatives today!

4) Leverage your networks

Encourage your musician friends to host a fundraising concert, or suggest that your faith group hold a coat drive. Choose to hold your next event at one of the many outstanding New American-owned restaurants in town. Be sure to share facts from reputable sources like the Tennessee Office for Refugees and Migration Policy Institute along the way.

5) Be a Tennessean

We are the volunteer state after all. We pull together in times of crisis and meet each other’s needs.  Nashville has been called the nation’s friendliest city, and we’ve openly welcomed refugees for decades.  Now is the time to uphold these values.


Please visit Meet Our Partners page to connect with a refugee serving agency. This list is not exhaustive. There are many nonprofits that work tirelessly to serve refugees. Get connected with one in your community and see how you can fit in.