Hundreds of refugees scrambled into the United States in early February after a Seattle judge halted President Donald J. Trump’s ban. While the Trump administration decides whether to appeal to the Supreme Court or rewrite the executive order altogether, people fleeing violence and persecution will continue trickling into the United States, seeking to build new lives from scratch.
But what will the more than two hundred and fifty thousand refugees already living here tell these newcomers about American life? Where can they pray, buy familiar food, or obtain the proper job certification? What is here to help recent arrivals feel welcome?
According to Yale College senior Elena Hodges, not enough. And the resources that do exist are hard to find.
Hodges, a Political Science major, started working with an Iraqi refugee family, the Al-Mashhadanis, in Fair Haven in late 2015 through the Yale Refugee Project. She quickly became close with the family’s seven children and saw up-close the obstacles they faced. The children, who range in age from one-and-a-half to twenty years old, felt socially isolated. They struggled in school, finding it difficult to learn English along with algebra and American history. The family didn’t have a car, meaning the nearest Islamic center was forty-five minutes away instead of fifteen.
Hodges thinks RAMP has the potential to change the way people think about refugee resettlement in addition to connecting refugees to the resources they need.
“That relationship just kind of got me thinking about why it is that people fall through the cracks in terms of accessing social services,” said Hodges. “New Haven has hundreds and hundreds of NGOs. But there are still a ton of people who aren’t getting access to those services.”
Part of the problem is that Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS), the nonprofit that resettled the family Hodges knows as well as hundreds of others, has only six months to integrate refugees into new communities. After that, federal funding dries up quickly. IRIS receives 60 percent of its revenue in the form of federal grants, meaning it must adhere to federal guidelines that prioritize short-term resettlement over long-term support. IRIS executive director Chris George described the government’s traditional philosophy as hasty.
“Just get them off to a good start, then pivot and welcome another family that’s coming tomorrow night,” he said.
Hodges considered the problems facing the Al-Mashhadani family and others like them more urgent than anything she could address by writing a research paper. So for her Human Rights Scholars capstone project, she decided to develop something that the Al-Mashhadanis could use to find services.
She came up with the Resource Access Mapping Project (RAMP), a tool that refugees and other service-seekers will eventually access on their smartphones. Inspired by similar projects in Berlin, Vancouver, and New Orleans, RAMP marks the location of every service provider relevant to refugees in New Haven, from soup kitchens and Goodwill stores to domestic violence shelters and mental health clinics. It tells users whether a provider’s location is wheelchair accessible. It lists the documents users should bring with them in order to receive services. It comes in English, Spanish, and Arabic, offers a community rating system, and integrates with Google Maps so users can add a food pantry to their daily bus route. It even maintains a FAQ page on topics like community farming, as well as information about family-friendly recreational activities.
At least, Hodges hopes it will do all this eventually.
“As of now, this is all kind of conjecture and theory,” she said. “It’s not real yet.”
RAMP is still in its spreadsheet phase, sprawling across twenty-three columns and 447 rows. Hodges and a team of volunteers, including Yale undergraduates and members of the Law and Medical schools, are working to make it a reality by the end of the semester using Kricket, an app aiming to create a crowdsourced, worldwide map of resources for refugees.
Although the map’s first iteration will only come in English and will only display provider locations rather than integrating with other apps, it still reflects a semester’s worth of research. Hodges and her team combed through New Haven’s prisoner reentry guides, consulted with experts at Yale Medical School, and called provider after provider to confirm their hours, services, and accessibility.
“My whole approach has been mostly to reach out to people who do the work in the community already, and to have it be made in communication with the people it’s targeted at,” she said.
Hodges admits her project is limited: it can’t reverse restrictive immigration policies, for example. But she thinks RAMP has the potential to change the way people think about refugee resettlement in addition to connecting refugees to the resources they need.
A guiding principle of RAMP is that, beyond having food in the pantry and clothes for the family, refugees deserve to live fulfilling lives. “‘Do I have employment that excites me? Am I leading a life that I actually care about, rather than just getting through another day?’…That’s not something that there’s really support for,” Hodges said. She hopes making refugees more familiar with available resources will allow them to focus on other aspects of their lives.
RAMP is welcome news to Joseph, a Congolese lawyer and refugee who arrived in Connecticut last October. (He did not want his last name to be published.) After five years of interviews and security checks, all while bouncing between Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, and Kakuma, its second-largest refugee camp, he now has a permanent home in the U.S.
With his IRIS-provided smartphone, Joseph is ready to use RAMP whenever it becomes available.
Halfway through his six months with IRIS, Joseph has the basics down. IRIS shuttled him, his wife, and his three children to their new home on their first day in New Haven. His kids are in school, and he just got a job at a packaging supply store. He feels safe—even welcomed. He’s amazed that strangers on the bus say “bless you” when he sneezes.
Yet his mental map of the city has holes. He wants to find cassava, a staple food in the Democratic Republic of Congo that’s hard to come by here. His children want to visit a zoo. With his IRIS-provided smartphone, he’s ready to use RAMP whenever it becomes available.
“It’s a good idea, a good idea,” he said. “Yes, yes, yes, yes. Because, you know, you have children, sometimes [it’s] not only good to bring them just to [the] library. The children like to know, to see animals, to see the mountains. It’s very, very good.”