Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service Conference: Learning, Leading, Leveraging, and Launching

Kadie must have enjoyed my last blog, because she has asked me to guest blog once again!  This time she has asked me to share my experience and thoughts after attending the LIRS (Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service) national conference.

The conference took place on September 2nd – 5th in sunny Tucson, Arizona.  LIRS had representatives from all three of their service networks—Refugee Resettlement, Access to Justice for migrants affected by detention, and Children’s Services—come together to create a network for welcoming migrants and refugees.  I was lucky enough to be invited to go along with Tim Jurgens, our Director, Deb Worth, our Associate Director, Jeff Iverson, our Job Developer, Yussuf Issak, an Employment caseworker, and Deo Rai, a caseworker for older refugees.

Tuesday started quite early—5 am at the airport—and of course I got very little sleep the night before.  A frantic search for a passport at 11:30 at night is not, surprisingly, a great way to get a good night’s sleep.  However, Tuesday went well.  I saw some great views from the plane, like the Grand Canyon and the Great Salt Lake, and we arrived in Tucson to wonderful weather.  It was warm and sunny and there were cacti EVERYWHERE!  Did you know that cacti grow incredibly slowly?  We learned this from our shuttle driver.  A cactus is nearly 100 years old before it will grow any arms.  All the cacti that you see with multiple arms, are really, really old—like a couple hundred years old!

That evening, LIRS had their welcome reception to give everyone a chance to meet.  We played people bingo, where we had to find individuals who fit a certain category and have them sign your paper.  I met some interesting individuals.  I met people from across the country, who worked in different aspects of immigration and refugee resettlement.  I met two ladies, Alex and Lauren, from New York who worked in the detention centers helping find lawyers and working through legal materials.  I met another, Autumn, from Georgia who helps resettle children.  I met Sister Joann from the Chicago area, who once lied down in front of a bus in protest of the detention center’s policy of restricting religious groups from going to the centers to visit and pray with the detainees.  I even met a woman who had a domesticated jungle cat for a pet!

So the next day, the conference officially began.  I won’t share you with every detail about the sessions and the topics but I will tell you about one speaker in particular.  We were lucky enough to hear from Sonia Nazario, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist.  She wrote Enrique’s Journey, which details the long and grueling journey that many children from Central American are making in search of asylum in the US.  Her story was amazing.  Not only did she talk to Enrique, but she took this journey as well.  She witnessed the gang and cartel violence and desperation that force the children to flee.  She walked through jungles and fields to get to the trains.  She jumped aboard the trains as they were going nearly 45 mph.  She clung onto the sides and back of the train as it would round bends and go through jungles.  She saw individuals fall from the train and lose limbs and lives.    She fought the men that the gangs and drug cartels hire to throw the asylum seekers off the moving trains.  She made it to the border and saw where the children camp, looking for a place to cross into the US.  It was a powerful presentation and taught me so much more about what’s happening at the border with the unaccompanied children.  Working in refugee resettlement, we hear the stories of those coming from overseas.  We don’t always get to hear of those coming from next door, so it was very enlightening for me.

Besides the sessions and speakers, we also made trips to other areas of Tucson.  Wednesday evening, we went and toured LSS of the Southwest’s resettlement office in Tucson.  It was cool to see another resettlement office and how things are run there.  Thursday evening, we had a dinner at a local outdoor nature area.  It was beautiful.  Of course there were hundreds of cacti and other desert plants around.  However, it decided to storm that night.  Now I’m not sure if you know this, but when it rains in the desert…IT POURS!  Everyone tried to hide under a tree or table or any overhang they could find.  Of course when one spot became full, it meant having to find another overhang with room which meant running through the downpour.  Deb and I had originally taken shelter under a tree with the President of LIRS, Linda Hartke.  Eventually, Deb and I left the relative safety of the tree and found an overhang.  We were soaked by that point but had fun talking with those who had been smart enough to find the overhang before it poured.  We also heard a rumor that the shuttle busses were here and as soon as they were full, would return to the hotel.  We took that chance.  Once more, Deb and I braved the downpour to walk back through the trails to find the bus.  Though we were thoroughly soaked by that time, I definitely will not forget it!

In all, I learned so much at the conference.  I got to meet wonderful people from across the US working to help others in need.  I picked up some great information that will hopefully allow me to be a better volunteer coordinator.  And I made some great memories!  But the best part is I learned how thankful I am to work with LSS of South Dakota.  Having seen and talked with others also working in refugee resettlement, I learned how lucky we are to be able to provide the services that we do.  We are lucky that the families have a knowledgeable caseworker to help them navigate the US.  We can help them find housing before they arrive.  We can help them at the Department of Social Services.  We can help them with orientation and finding a job.  Some other sites have to rely solely on volunteers to provide this assistance.  And while volunteers are amazing, I’m glad our volunteers don’t have to deal with the headaches of trying to fill out all the different government forms.  I’m glad our mentors can spend their time with the families getting to know each other and helping the family navigate American culture.  And I’m glad and thankful I get to be a part of all this.

Get involved!  Go to http://www.lsssd.org/family_services/refugee/volunteer.html to become a volunteer!

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