A Reflection on Year 1

from the desk of Emily Crane Linn, Resettlement Director

It is incredible to realize that it has been a full year since we received the news that Northwest Arkansas would be recognized as an official refugee resettlement site through the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. I remember being awed at the time at how quickly everything had moved. Canopy NWA had been a mere idea only 9 months prior… but somehow in that time, thanks to our community’s passion, hard work and sheer determination, we managed to submit a strong proposal to the State Department and they selected us as a resettlement site.  Even now, one year later, I’m still amazed by it.

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But I’m even more amazed by all we’ve accomplished since then. Let’s review, shall we? In Year 1, we:

              -resettled 55 individuals from 5 countries: Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, El Salvador, Burma and Cameroon

              -helped all those families find work and become self-sufficient within 90 days

              -held over 50 community outreach events to answer people’s questions, tell stories and spread our passion through our community

              -raised over $90,000 to make our work possible

And we did all this thanks to the hard work of our 500 registered volunteers and co-sponsors…. What a year!

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As a staff, we have learned a lot. A year ago, we were excited and rearing to go… and fairly clueless about how to actually go about turning refugees into Arkansans. Our case manager Francisco said it best on the night of December 14 as we drove to the airport to pick up our first family:

“Basically, we do not know what we are doing… but we are ready.”

Anyone on our staff will tell you that we had some pretty bumpy moments this first year. With no institutional memory to draw from and no handbook to follow, we mostly had to learn by trial and error. We learned how to best conduct our intake interviews by first learning how not to conduct our intake interviews. We learned how to teach cultural orientation by first learning how not to teach cultural orientation. We learned how to clearly communicate expectations only after dealing with disappointed clients whose expectations were not met. It was hard. But with each family, our policies have gotten stronger, our systems smoother, our files more organized, our communication clearer. One year later, I can say that while I am sure we will continue to encounter new situations that will require us to tweak our processes or create new policies, I am confident that we are ready for whatever may come because we stand on a strong foundation.   

I want to thank our co-sponsors and volunteers who graciously walked up this steep learning curve with us: thank you for being patient when you asked us questions we didn’t have answers to, thank you for being flexible when we changed our plans and policies midstream (and then changed them again… and again), thank you for being brave enough to sign up for programs that had never been tried before and for staying positive through setbacks, complications and miscommunications.

I also want to thank my incredible staff for putting in the sweat (literally…we move a lot of furniture), tears (maybe that was just me?) and long hours necessary to get this project off the ground. Rick, our employment specialist has built our employment program from the ground up: he’s come a long way towards developing a job readiness curriculum to help our clients get ready to enter the workforce, he’s developed strong relationships with employers in a variety of fields who are always willing to give our clients a try, and he’s patiently walked with each of our clients through the ups and downs of the job search process until each of them has found their way into a job that works for them.

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Francisco, our case manager, has consistently gone above and beyond the call of duty to make sure our families are safe, comfortable and healthy. At times, this has involved some tasks not listed on his job description, such as capturing and disposing of a snake, spending the night in the ER and being urinated upon by a toddler. But he has been unwavering in his dedication and love toward our clients and that has made all the difference for them.

Lauren, our community outreach coordinator, has also shown herself willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done, including getting up at 5 am to be interviewed on Bella Vista Community TV, spending an entire day talking to 6th graders and giving up her weekends to train co-sponsors. Thanks to her hard work, we’ve been able to share our hearts with hundreds (if not thousands) of people in our community from all kinds of backgrounds. Miranda, our new volunteer coordinator, came on board at the very end of our first year, but in her first month, she has already helped us make a lot of progress toward evaluating our volunteer programs so that we can build on them and make them better in this second year.

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This first year truly has been a community effort—and it has been truly worthwhile.

If there is one big lesson I have learned this year, it is that Canopy’s work not only benefits the refugees we welcome; it benefits all of Northwest Arkansas. I have come to see that we do not just serve refugees; we serve our whole community. In the process of receiving refugees, we are also providing our businesses with good workers, our schools with good students, our churches with new ministry opportunities and our neighbors with new friends from countries they might not ever get to visit. One year in, I believe in our work more than ever. At a time when everything seems to want to divide us, refugee resettlement is bringing us together. It’s forcing us to solve problems we’ve long needed to solve and it’s making us collaborate with people we might not otherwise talk to. Through our joint efforts, we are not only saving precious lives; we are making our community stronger, more united and more creative. And when I say “we,” I don’t mean the five of us on staff at Canopy; I mean all of us. I mean you.

Thank you. Here’s to Year 2.