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Episcopal Refugee Network provides critical aid and advocacy for thousands of multi-lingual refugees

April 13, 2011

By Elaine McLevie, Community Relations Coordinator

Episcopal Refugee Network, San Diego


The Episcopal Refugee Network of San Diego (formerly St. Luke’s Refugee Network) is a Jubilee Ministry serving those who came to San Diego as refugees from many countries.  There are estimated to be over 90,000 residents of San Diego who came here legally as refugees.  Of those, at least half are not literate in their own language or English, and do not speak or understand English well. For some languages, such as Shan – a group of people who live primarily in Myanmar – there are no English speakers.


The ministry helps those refugees who: 1) have needs which cannot be met (through the specific federal funding available) through the four resettlement agencies; 2) those not eligible for resettlement agency assistance; and 3) those who cannot yet access assistance, which will be available later once they have fulfilled the requirements necessary to become citizens, and have applied and been accepted. There are others also, who, for various reasons, fall through the safety net. The network’s five employees, refugees themselves, speak a variety of the languages spoken by those they serve. The ministry has over 80 volunteers.


In early 2010, we learned of three unique opportunities for non-English-speaking refugees to be included in government plans affecting their future, and that of the communities where they live.  A volunteer from our Jubilee Center launched each of these opportunities in San Diego County.


  1. 1.       Census forms were available in 24 languages, but they were not available in Karen, Karenni, Chin, Kachin, Shan, Bari or Bhutanese.  When a Network volunteer arrived to pick up forms at a local Census office, the Census staff was surprised to hear that refugees in San Diego spoke those languages, and that even if the form had been translated into one of the languages, most refugees would not be able to read them. Making it even more difficult, a census worker who knocked on the door of such a family would have no common language in which to communicate. 

The Network staff has contact with those families, and the necessary language ability.  The staff went out to their apartments, explained how the census works and helped families fill out and mail forms to meet the deadline.  Without this effort, these groups with major needs would have been left out of local government calculations, and their communities would not receive necessary funding.  


  1. 2.       The San Diego County Office of Refugees invited organizations that serve refugees to provide input for state plans for future job needs. To obtain information from the refugees themselves, the County Office sent out a survey to be filled out on a computer by “as many refugees as possible”.  


Our volunteer had hard copies made of the survey. Our staff took the forms out to families and helped them complete it. Then the volunteer delivered the forms to the County Office for Refugees for inclusion in the report. Again, formerly untapped voices were heard.  This activity focused the attention of government planners on the special needs of the large number of refugees, who: (a) do not speak, read or write English; (b) may not be able to read in their own language; and (c) do not have access to a computer.


  1. 3.       The state organized a number of workshops for health care and support providers in order to document current gaps in service and to plan for health care needs of low-income residents for the next 10 years. Network volunteers were there. One surprising need emerged: A large number of refugees need help with transportation and translation services at every point, if they are to access medical treatment.

The Network provides important assistance for those who otherwise would “fall through the cracks.  We were able to help refugees understand how to have input into decisions, and to alert government planners to the needs of at least half of the estimated 90,000 refugees in San Diego County.



I recently attended a meeting of a planning committee for San Diego County that was charged with creating a 10-year plan for disaster preparedness.  When I arrived I was recognized and told that they were not going to include the specific needs of the refugee population – -only the needs of the elderly and those with disabilities (and it rapidly became apparent that the needs of those refugees in those two categories were not being addressed either!).


 Refugees are placed in apartments according to where low cost units are available when they arrive – NOT according to where other speakers of their language may already be living.  So there are small clusters and isolated families all over the county.  This means that even if you had a helicopter and a taped message in 24 different languages, you still would not be able to reach most of the refugee community with instructions about what was happening and what they must do. In addition, transportation would be needed, especially for women and small children who are left at home on their own during the day. 


I realize that there are tremendous difficulties in addressing the needs of the refugees but to leave such a large population out of the planning is unthinkable!  In five years, there will be more, and there will be even more different languages.  We have begun meetings with resettlement agencies and others to create a map showing where major language clusters are, but keeping that accurate will also be an ongoing task, and will not help the more isolated families. And, as the refugees are in densely populated areas, evacuation plans would require buses and clogged streets. 


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