Rhode Island Non-profit Lends a Helping Hand to Immigrants and Refugees

Diane K., journalist

A few months ago, the U.S. immigrant population reached a record of 46.2 million, which is the highest number recorded in American history. In Rhode Island, one in five people is an immigrant, making up about 13% of the population. One non-profit organization, called the Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island, lends a helping hand to those immigrants by assisting them to settle in Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts.

The Dorcas International was established in 2013 from a merger between the International Institute of Rhode Island (IIRI) and the Dorcas Place Adult and Family Literacy Center with the mission to create a greater and more unified organization. Since then, Dorcas International has continued a century’s worth of work in the community to empower newcomers to Rhode Island by providing programs and services to immigrants, refugees, and people who would like to overcome cultural, educational, economic, and language barriers.

Dorcas International provides a variety of programs and services that aid education and training, citizenship and immigration, refugee resettlement, employment, unaccompanied minors, and translation and interpretation. In just the past year, Dorcas International was able to help a total of 227 refugees from 31 different countries. The education and training programs taught 907 adults to learn and improve their English, earn a high school diploma, and develop new job skills. The citizenship and immigration service assisted 749 immigrants throughout their immigration process with a 95 percent approval rate for status adjustment. Also, refugee resettlement services helped resettle 16 refugees and 14 asylees from Columbia, Ukraine, Haiti, Turkey, Guatemala, China, Eritrea, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Syrian Arab Republic, Jordan, and Rwanda. Employment services helped 495 people to earn jobs, and services helping unaccompanied minors reunited 56 minors from Central America to their sponsors. In addition, a total of 7,667 interpreting appointments were conducted by the institute’s services.

There are more than a hundred staff members working at Dorcas International, which include teachers, attorneys, caseworkers, financial team, development team, communication team, Refugee Resettlement, and Case Management department, and Pinpoint Translation Services team.

Julie Cofone is the director of public relations and communications in Dorcas International and has been responsible for all aspects of external communication since July of last year. Despite the challenges COVID-19 has presented, Cofone states that the institution has found new ways to continue serving those in need during the pandemic. For example, the Dorcas International crisis counseling program now offers assistance and resources to people (especially immigrants, refugees, and the underserved) who are experiencing difficulties because of the pandemic.

Dorcas International provides assistance to immigrants and refugees who have come to the US from many different countries. Currently, the number one country people emigrate from is Afghanistan. Many people also come from Guatemala, Syria, Iran, Turkey, Congo, Ukraine, and Iraq. However, Cofone states that this depends largely on factors such as world circumstances and the presidential administration.

Former clients of Dorcas International work in different jobs based on their language proficiency, skills, and education. “One recent Afghan evacuee is now a paralegal for example,” said Cofone. “Part of what Dorcas International does is teach English; provide cultural instruction (paying bills, navigating public schools, interviewing for jobs, etc. — all different in U.S. than many countries); offer job training; provide appropriate clothing; etc.”

One former client of Dorcas International is Youssef Akhtarini, who came to the U.S. as a refugee from Syria. In Syria, Akhtarini had made handmade baklava and Syrian sweets at his sweet shops in Aleppo. However, when civil war broke out, he and his family were forced to flee to Turkey in a pick-up truck — a 10 — hour journey with life-threatening circumstances. Thankfully, everyone was able to safely make this journey. Later on, Akhtarini and his family were registered as refugees and accepted to resettle in the U.S. They arrived in Rhode Island in 2016, where Dorcas International caseworkers helped the family to resettle. The institute provided assistance in learning English and adapting to a new culture and lifestyle they were unfamiliar with. Despite hardships, Akhtarini continued to hold onto his love for making baklava and was able to rent commercial cooking space to bake and sell his sweets. With the help of friends and supporters in the community (including a Dorcas International volunteer), Akhtarini currently has his own bakery in Providence called Aleppo Sweets.

Chance Boas, also a former client, came from Tanzania to Providence in 2008. He says that his experiences in the U.S. could have been very different without the guidance from Dorcas International (which had been the IIRI then). “The good thing about Dorcas International Institute was all these folks help you to feel safe and at home,” said Chance.

For Cofone, seeing the value of her work, helping the organization, and getting the needs of clients met are the most rewarding parts of her work. “Everyone at Dorcas International hopes to be able to help those in need build sustainable, self-sufficient lives here in RI,” said Cofone.

Photo courtesy of Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island.

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