Earlier this year, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service was recognized as one of the top five finalists for the Larsen Lam ICONIQ Impact Award, a funding opportunity created to support a brighter, more durable future for refugees. The organization’s proposed project, New American Cities, would provide an opportunity to rebuild for both new Americans and the cities they call home through economic empowerment, social mobility, and the promotion of diverse, inclusive communities.
The winners of the Award and additional grant funding were announced in May. Though it did not take home the top prize, LIRS’ New American Cities project received $1.25M in funding from donors in the ICONIQ network and beyond.
“We’d like to express our sincere gratitude to Lever for Change and ICONIQ Impact for the opportunity to compete for this award and for helping us raise the visibility of our New American Cities project,” said Andrew G. Steele, Vice President for Development and Outreach at LIRS. “We’re especially grateful to our funders, anonymous and otherwise, who have given us this investment and the ability to launch this transformative program. We truly believe that the New American Cities model can fundamentally change refugee resettlement in this country. This is just the beginning.”
New American Cities is a response to a fundamental problem in the refugee resettlement system. When refugees arrive in the US, they receive a few months of basic services, such as legal protection and job placement, designed to help them acclimate to a new country, new culture, and often a new language. But while these services are needed, they are woefully inadequate and do not sufficiently equip refugees to anticipate and navigate the systemic challenges to long-term economic and social inclusion that they will encounter in their new communities.
The proposed project builds upon LIRS’ New American Pathways (NAP) program, which was piloted in 2019 with the aim of bridging that gap. NAP was supported by the Walmart Foundation and provided career upskilling and advancement to refugees and other immigrants around the country, allowing them to move from survival jobs into meaningful careers.
One participant in the program was Julienne Nyirarwaka, a former refugee from Rwanda. When Julienne began the program, she had a job as a caregiver in a nursing home making about $8/hour. After working with a career navigation specialist through New American Pathways, she was able to secure a career as a Community Support Worker for pregnant women and new mothers, many of whom are former refugees themselves. Julienne now makes nearly $20/hour and, equally as important, feels a sense of fulfillment in her work.
“I started working with Carla, the program manager, and she helped me with the application. I was hesitating because of the language and because my bachelor’s degree was from Africa, but she helped me prepare, and that’s how I got this job, I’m so thankful to LIRS,” she said. “Now, I love my job because I’m helping moms with babies. When I came [to the U.S.], I had four children and it was so hard. Now, I get to help them be a mother and do what I know.”
As a result of the NAP pilot program, participants’ wages increased by an average of 62 percent. 81 percent of participants who were placed in jobs started in their career pathway, and 84 percent of participants placed in jobs were placed in upskilled positions.
The New American Cities program builds upon that success by including not only individualized career navigation services for refugees, but also connections to pathway builders who forge relationships between refugees and employers, expose training opportunities, and aim to address systemic barriers to advancement. The integration process is buttressed by a network of coalitions and champions who will challenge negative narratives about refugees and create opportunities for social connections at the workplace, in the neighborhood, and beyond.
“At LIRS, we understand that resettlement system in our country has its flaws and demands adjustment and, in some instances, revolutionizing,” said LIRS CEO Krish O’Mara Vignarajah. “We believe that New American Cities will allow us to change the lives of its refugee participants, fundamentally shift national and local narratives related to refugees, and create an innovative, inclusive framework that will assist thousands more refugees to come.
This investment affords us the chance to truly reimagine resettlement – to transform the system from offering refugees merely a chance to survive, to creating the pathways that allow them and the communities they live in to thrive.”
To learn more about how you or your foundation can support New American Cities, contact LIRS Corporate and Foundation Relations Specialist Leah Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org.