Learning About Refugees

To expand upon Class 2’s study of immigration and refugees, Head Teacher Laura O’Reilly invited a special guest to share her knowledge and expertise. “We’re really excited to hear from you!” Ms. O’Reilly exclaimed, as she spotlighted Milagros Cruz from the International Rescue Committee (IRC). The 60 students – all three sections – sat up straight in their digital boxes and waited with anticipation.

“I used to work near Penn Station, but now I’m in my yellow room, my favorite color,” remarked Ms. Cruz, who, like many, is doing her job from home these days. For the last several years, she has come to Chapin to talk to Class 2 about her important work. Although an in-person presentation wasn’t possible this year, Ms. Cruz easily pivoted to a recent Zoom session, which was as informative as it was engaging.

“The International Rescue Committee (www.rescue.org) is for families starting all over again,” she explained, adding that this prominent humanitarian aid organization has a presence in more than 40 countries and 26 U.S. cities and focuses on providing clean water, shelter, healthcare, education and other support to refugees whose lives have been devastated by wars, natural disasters and other unsafe circumstances.

As the longtime Community Relations Officer in IRC’s New York headquarters, Ms. Cruz engages in a wide range of activities, such as fundraising for expenses and raising awareness by pitching refugee stories to the media. She told the students that the refugees she assists hail mainly from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and, more recently, parts of Africa and speak a number of languages including Spanish and French.

“We help asylum seekers,” Ms. Cruz said, asking the students if anyone had heard this term. After several raised their hands, she explained that to be granted asylum, a form of international protection, the refugees must file paperwork with the Department of Homeland Security when they arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border, for example.

Those who desire to settle in New York City are given a piece of paper from the IRC with Ms. Cruz’s name of it. “This is their ticket to a new life,” she said. After enduring grueling journeys, often relying on the kindness of strangers, scores of displaced people regularly arrive at IRC’s doorsteps desperate for help. “They have no place to live, no clothes and no food,” said the speaker. “Children your age have shown up at the office, very hungry and having been on buses for days.”

Ms. Cruz said she jumps into action, heading to the neighborhood deli to fill countless takeout containers with warm chicken and rice. “They are so happy to have food. That’s why I love my job so much,” she said. She also distributes MetroCards, while encouraging the refugees to “shop” in the IRC donation closets for necessary items like clothing, diapers, baby formula, even strollers.

In addition, Ms. Cruz hands out gift cards to grocery stores and other establishments so the refugees can purchase food, noting that they are unable to legally earn money because they don’t have social security numbers. The IRC also helps each refugee family settle into a furnished apartment, enroll their children in school, and receive medical care, legal assistance, English lessons and other essential services.

Currently, refugee movement to the U.S., which had already been severely limited, is on pause. “Because of the pandemic, we have been unable to welcome any new families,” she said, adding that more than 80 asylum seekers came to the New York’s IRC last summer alone, and she is expecting these numbers to continue once the borders reopen.

Following her remarks, Ms. Cruz welcomed questions from the audience. “What can we do to help?” asked Ms. O’Reilly.

“If you feel strongly about helping refugees, I encourage you to write a note to your local representatives expressing why it’s important for another child to have the same opportunities as you,” said the speaker. The students can also read book through the IRC’s remote storytime program, collect school supplies and participate in a host of other initiatives (the full list is here https://www.rescue.org/how-to-help).

“We’ve been studying all the ways immigrants make our country a better place,” commented Ms. O’Reilly. Thanks to Ms. Cruz’s captivating presentation and her ideas for taking action, these Class 2 students and their teachers are eager to make a difference.