When Starting from Scratch, Every Little Thing Helps

Refugees arrive without the basics; the Red Cross is helping to provide necessities like sheets, pillows, towels - and teddy bears.

Refugees arrive without the basics; the Red Cross is helping to provide necessities like sheets, pillows, towels - and teddy bears.

Story by Patricia Billinger, Communications Director, Denver, Colorado

When you go on a trip for a week or more, how many bags do you pack? A carry-on? One suitcase? Two?

What if you knew you were packing to travel to a distant land thousands of miles away, never to return home again? Imagine arriving in a foreign country with only what you could fit in one suitcase -- and having to start your life from scratch, including finding a job, enrolling your children in school, and taking care of daily tasks like cooking and caring for your family.

That is the reality facing many refugees who arrive in the United States to be resettled after having fled violence, armed conflict or persecution in their homelands.

"There’s not one stereotypical refugee; some people come here after living in refugee camps for 20 years, where they didn't have much and weren't able to work, while others arrive from places like Baghdad, where they may have had a nice house, a job and cars. But the majority of clients come with one or two suitcases filled with all of their belongings – mostly clothing and their most precious possessions,” said Jaime Koehler Blanchard, Community Program Supervisor for Lutheran Family Services in the Refugee and Asylee Program.

Lutheran Family Services (LFS) is one of two agencies that take the lead on resettling refugees in Colorado. LFS workers make sure refugees arriving in Colorado have an apartment rented and equipped with basic furnishing, help the refugees find employment, and assist them as they integrate into their new culture.

A Lutheran Family Services worker loads supplies for refugee welcome kits from the Red Cross.

A Lutheran Family Services worker loads supplies for refugee welcome kits from the Red Cross.

Koehler Blanchard said the organization anticipates helping about 850 refugees resettle in Colorado this year – or about 70 per month. Some – but not all – receive a one-time Federal stipend intended to help pay for some of the most basic essentials required for starting from scratch: rental deposit, first month’s rent, some furnishings.

Equipping a home with what we consider the most basic of household necessities can quickly add up: mattresses, furniture, pots and pans, cooking utensils, silverware, toiletries, towels, cleaning supplies. And in Colorado’s high-priced housing market, refugees need to save what little they can in order to tide them over while seeking employment.

That’s why LFS seeks donated goods to cover most of those needs – and why the Red Cross Colorado & Wyoming Region’s International Services program stepped in to lend a hand. For three years, the Red Cross has been providing mattresses and new household goods to help welcome refugees to their new home.

The Red Cross recently received a grant from The Melvin and Elaine Wolf Foundation enabling it to expand and improve these “housewarming baskets” for refugees. Thanks to the grant, the Red Cross purchased new pots, pans, silverware, dishes, cooking utensils, mattresses and blankets for 124 refugee welcome kits. LFS will distribute the housewarming kits to refugee families resettling in Colorado.

Enough supplies for 124 refugee welcome kits stacked and ready at the Red Cross. Supplies include pots, pans, silverware, dishes, cooking utensils, mattresses and blankets.

Enough supplies for 124 refugee welcome kits stacked and ready at the Red Cross. Supplies include pots, pans, silverware, dishes, cooking utensils, mattresses and blankets.

“They help defray the cost a little bit for each client so that they can use that money to go towards rent; it gives them more of a financial cushion until they secure a job,” Koehler Blanchard said. She noted that the pots and pans are helpful because LFS doesn’t receive many donations of pots and pans from the public – “people keep their pots and pans for years, so we would otherwise have to buy pots and pans, and it ends up costing a lot of money,” she explained.

The Red Cross has also continued to provide mattresses, which Koehler Blanchard said are especially helpful because LFS has to be very cautious about condition when accepting used mattresses. A new twin box and mattress set typically costs the organization at least $170. “As far as we can stretch their dollar by providing them with donated goods instead of having to purchase it new, that extends the money they have to pay rent,” she said.

Support for refugees from the American Red Cross also comes in the form of its Restoring Family Links program. Oftentimes, refugees have been separated from the ones they love, and not only need materials goods, but also the love and support of family. The global Red Cross Movement is able to locate and reconnect these families, helping them build more resilient lives in their new communities.

Find out more about the ways the Red Cross and Lutheran Family Services alleviate the suffering of people impacted by war, conflict and persecution:

Lutheran Family Services Refugee and Asylee Program - www.lfsrm.org/refugee-asylee

Red Cross Migration Crisis Overview - redcross.org/migrationcrisis

Red Cross Restoring Family Links - redcross.org/reconnectingfamilies

For more stories from the Colorado & Wyoming Region, please click here.