With nine moves in just the last 15 years – to places as vastly different as Japan and Alabama – Kristen Bloom knows something about dislocation.
“I grew up in a small New England town. We would go to the market and see people we knew. There were people to lean on, neighbors and friends who are a strong network of help and support and compassion.
“I realized the importance of that especially over the past decade and a half, with all the moving around to places where I didn’t know anyone,” says Kristen, whose husband serves in the Air Force and is often reassigned. “Dislocation is my middle name.”
When she and her family landed in South Florida in 2017, and she came to know people within the Syrian refugee community there – and their struggles adjusting to new lives and meeting new challenges – it was natural her connection and sensitivity would move her to do something.
That same year she founded Refugee Assistance Alliance (RAA) to help refugees from Middle Eastern, African and Asian countries settling in south Florida – specifically in Broward and Miami-Dade Counties. RAA is a new grantee of The Good People Fund.
“I felt compelled,” Kristen says. “I know what it’s like to start over, but I don’t know the trauma. They have been through so much more than any of us can even imagine. They were in need of a support network that just didn’t exist here.”
In just the three years that it’s been operating, RAA and its corps of about 100 volunteers has helped close to 175 individuals – adults and children – as they strive to gain footing in a new landscape of language, bureaucracy, and custom.
While RAA places a high priority on teaching English to new refugees, it has established what Kristen calls a “holistic” approach to resettlement, recognizing that it is not just basic skills that lead to success, but also relationships, friendships and community.
That’s a challenge in the sprawling two-county region, she says. Compared to the large and thriving Spanish-speaking refugee communities there, Middle Eastern, African, and Asian refugees make up a relatively small percentage of the population and are often geographically isolated from one another – a fact that makes their needs even greater than just language skills.
“The refugees may only know three other families and they are all in the same boat, not established,” Kristen says. “It’s like the blind leading the blind.”
Knowing that, RAA also designs cultural events to build strong ties within the refugee community and to create exposures and learning opportunities for those beyond it; programs for refugee children to guard against isolation and to build long-lasting friendships; tutoring to assist children and adults in school and other learning environments to ensure advancement; and initiatives to help individuals and families navigate everything from citizenship and driving tests, to the healthcare system and emergency preparedness.
The need for building both practical skills and community is great, Kristen says, noting that while new refugees are typically under the wing of resettlement agencies, help usually ends after a relatively short three to six months. RAA gets referrals from these, the Florida Center for Survivors of Torture, Church World Service, and word of mouth.
As the coronavirus pandemic has hit communities hard since last spring, RAA has pivoted away from in-person visits to Zoom-based gatherings. The organization gifted laptops to each of its clients so they can remain connected and continue with virtual tutoring and visits.
In fact, all of the 47 school-age children who depend on RAA for academic tutoring advanced to the next grade level this year, a development that Kristen describes as “a huge victory during extra-challenging times.”
As an impact-maker in her corner of South Florida, Kristen is also involved in refugee issues nationally. She is part of the Hello Neighbor Network, a consortium of nine organizations similar to RAA throughout the country. The network was founded in 2019 and is supported by The Good People Fund.
The work of its member organizations will be more critical in coming years as the number of refugees entering the country is expected to increase, Kristen says.
“We are in uncharted territory. Many of us are less than five years old. There is no blueprint for what we are doing. So it’s critically important that we learn from each other and share best practices so we can best serve those in our communities.”
Ask Kristen to describe that one moment that made her know she was doing the right thing at the right moment and she doesn’t pause.
She tells the story of one refugee from Syria who was having such a hard time adjusting to life in the United States that she was considering going back to her homeland. But with the continuing encouragement, support and community she received from RAA, she stayed and earned her GED and is a role model of success and inspiration to her own children.
And that, Kristen said, is a success of the people-to-people connections that are at the heart of RAA’s mission and her own.
“People are just people, yearning for connections, and you don’t need the same culture or language or religion to get that,” she said. “Our ultimate goal is to build peace and understanding among the people of South Florida. I believe it’s harder to hate up close.”
By H. Glenn Rosenkrantz, for The Good People Fund