A coalition of 100 organizations called “The Iowa Refugee Alliance” is holding a lobbying day at the statehouse, urging lawmakers to expand a program that helps refugees gain work skills and, ultimately, land a job.
Twenty-one-year-old Hser Pa Hei is originally from Burma.
“I grew up in a Thailand refugee camp and when I first came here I was about 12 years old and I came in 2007,” she says.
She graduated from a Des Moines high school in 2013 and is one of 17 refugees in Iowa who are being mentored by another refugee through the “Refugee Rise” program.
“I’ve learned a lot of professional skills, like typing, like computer skills, like communications skills,” Hei says. “It was really, really a lot to me, as a refugee.”
Twenty-seven-year-old Eugene Kiruhura fled his home in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2004 during a civil war and lived in a refugee camp in Burundi for nine years.
“We were attacked by rebels or enemies,” Kirurhura says. “They killed 166 people.”
Dozens more were injured and he says the camp was targeted because the refugees were Christians.
“Because of that genocide, that massacre I was able to come to the United States,” Kiruhura says. “I found myself in Des Moines, Iowa. I didn’t know anybody. I didn’t speak English. English is my fifth language.”
Kiruhura is one of the estimated 10,000 refugees who have arrived in Iowa over the past five years.
“There were big challenges: transportation, language barrier, work, communication, taxes…but I’m glad now,” Kiruhura says. “God called me to be a pastor, to serve in different ways, so I’m always telling people that we serve God by helping people.”
He is now a community advocate for the “Refugee Rise” initiative in Iowa. It is part of the federal “AmeriCorps” program. The federal government is offering Iowa $650,000 to expand the program beyond Des Moines, Marshalltown and Waterloo into other areas of the state — but only if the State of Iowa commits $350,000 to the effort.