Immigration in the Richmond Area

It is hard to ignore the current immigration crisis. Coverage of it consistently plasters the pages of newspapers and the screens of television and portable devices. However, even though the crisis is so widely acknowledged and broadcasted, it still remains a distant and abstract concept for many people in the United States. What those people do not realize is that the crisis is not actually so distant and abstract. The effects of the immigration epidemic can be seen all over the United States. In fact, the University of Virginia analyzed census data and found that Virginia’s foreign-born population has grown exponentially since 1970, from one in one hundred residents to one in nine residents in 2012. While the majority of these immigrants and refugees settled in Northern Virginia, Richmond accounts for 11% percent of Virginia’s foreign-born population. According the 2011 census, most of the immigrants and refugees settling in the Richmond area are from China, India, and Taiwan. In Henrico County, the majority of immigrants and refugees are from Central and South American nations and Middle Eastern nations. Due to the rising immigrant and refugee population, there is a growing need for organizations and volunteers to assist foreigners arriving in the Richmond area. The Richmond community offers many programs for the community to get involved in these immigrants’ and refugees’ transition into the United States. Within Collegiate’s own community, there are also many programs available to Collegiate students to get involved with the increasingly diverse Richmond population.

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Photo credit: Kate Kinder.

One example of a program offered within the Collegiate community is The Tuckahoe Family YMCA’s program Strengthening Teens Academically and Recreationally (STAR). Through this program, Collegiate students tutor immigrant and refugee students at Byrd Middle School. The program began when its creator, Meg Billet, met with the principal of Byrd Middle School, Cheri Guempel, to discuss the needs of the school, which is only about a mile from the Tuckahoe Family YMCA facility. Guempel informed Billett of the growing refugee population, and she shared that she felt that the refugee students were getting lost in the shuffle of the school community. Consequently, the STAR program was born to aid those students with their homework after school on Wednesdays and Thursdays. The goal of the STAR program is to help students pass their classes and begin reading on grade level, keep them active through physical activity, and enrich their lives through teen life skills such as cooking, hygiene, and internet safety. In the long term, Billett hopes to expand the program to five days a week and offer it at other YMCA locations. In working toward these goals, Billett has experienced numerous setbacks. She says, “Most of the challenges that I’ve faced are centered around language barriers. I have found that due to the fact that I don’t speak the 16 different languages that are represented in our group, I have a hard time with behavioral issues, and then communicating them to the parents, as almost none of our parents speak English. It is definitely a learning experience, and I usually try to take it one day at a time.” One of the major needs of the program is people. Billet says, “We really need a one-to-one ratio with the tutoring portion of our program, and having high school-aged volunteers has really been a godsend.” Upper School English teacher Allison Seay, faculty supervisor of the STAR program, pointed out another obstacle regarding the lack of able volunteers. Seay says, “…It is difficult to be involved if you don’t know first that it exists. I’m a perfect example; I am someone who has been living in Richmond for years, and was simply unaware that this city had become home to such a large and vulnerable population.” Collegiate’s winter partnership with the STAR program is now over, and the program desperately needs new volunteers.

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Photo credit: Kate Kinder.

I personally became involved with the STAR program this winter when Collegiate offered tutoring the refugee students as a sports credit. I, along with eleven other classmates, traveled to Byrd Middle School every Wednesday and Thursday and served as not only tutors but mentors to these children. Elizabeth Murphy (‘17) says, “I thought I was going to be a just a tutor, but this program is so much more than that. I have learned more than I ever could imagine about what is going on in the world around me and even learned bits and pieces of different languages, all while making great friends.” It was truly an amazing opportunity and privilege to establish relationships with these students and hear their stories. The smiles on their faces when we walked through the door every day made me realize the difference we were making in their lives. The Collegiate students were able to offer a sense of consistency in the students’ inconsistent lives. Even though were were not able to radically improve their home lives or miraculously improve their grades, they depended on and appreciated us. Murphy says, “I hope Collegiate collegiate continues this partnership with the YMCA, because it helps students meet and learn about a part of our community that we often do not know exists. Before I never knew that there was such a large population of immigrants and refugees in Richmond, and I had no idea how culturally and ethnically diverse the city was just a few streets away from Collegiate.”

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Photo credit: Collegiate School.

Furthermore, another way to get involved with the immigrant and refugee population in Richmond through the Collegiate community is participating in the Saturday Academy program at Oak Grove Bellemeade Elementary School. Upper School Spanish teacher Esperanza Soria-Nieto, offers Collegiate students the opportunity to volunteer at this the program every Saturday morning from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m.. The Saturday Academy program serves students in need of English as a Second Language tutoring and homework help. The program partners with Hispanic immigrant or refugee students one-on-one with a Collegiate student tutor, who uses a mixture of Spanish and English to instruct the children. Other students with a strong understanding of the English language are partnered in small groups with a Collegiate student to work on a more advanced English as Second Language curriculum. Most of these students are unable to receive help from their parents due to limited English language proficiency. Mia Jackson (‘17) says, “I like volunteering at Oak Grove Bellemeade because I really enjoy working with kids, and I like knowing that what I do to help them with their English is really affecting their day-to-day lives… They are also really cute.” The whole group is also led in a mixture of games, physical activity, and life skills lessons by Collegiate students who design the curriculum with the help of Soria-Nieto. Soria-Nieto says, “What we do on Saturdays is so important… Nobody sits down with them and helps them with their homework at home. Because of this we try to work on their reading and writing skills and other things they have trouble practicing at home.”  

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Photo credit: Collegiate School.

Joel Moses, a former English as a Second Language instructor and teacher at Oak Grove Bellemeade Elementary School, created the Saturday Academy Program two years ago to give the Spanish-speaking children of the surrounding neighborhood something constructive to do on Saturday mornings. The program works to reinforce and enhance the concepts the children are learning in school in order to establish a sense of confidence in the children’s English abilities. Moses has even tracked some of the students since they were in kindergarten. He also coordinates English as a Second Language classes for the parents of Saturday Academy students to demonstrate how intensely the Saturday Academy volunteers are working with the children to improve their English skills. Moses mentioned that one of the major challenges the program faces is finding materials that accurately suit the skill level of each individual child. Moses also mentioned that the major needs of Saturday Academy are physical. “We need copy paper, adequate books and adequate writing and drawing materials.” In the future, Moses hopes to expand the adult program and offer life and work skills classes.

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Photo credit: Commonwealth Catholic Charities.

Another program that is outside the Collegiate community but is easy to get involved in is Refugee and Immigration Services (RIS) through the Commonwealth Catholic Charities of Virginia. The charity has locations in Richmond, Roanoke, and Hampton Roads. The overarching goal of the Commonwealth Catholic Charities is to alleviate human suffering and to restore hope, dignity, and opportunities to Virginia’s residents. All of the programs the charity offers provide quality and compassionate human services to all people, especially the most vulnerable, regardless of faith. Specifically, RIS aims to enable refugees to achieve self-sufficiency as soon as possible. Marketing Manager Paige Peak says her favorite part of the charity is “…knowing that we are able to give hope to the hopeless.” Peak is passionate about the refugee crisis and pointed out that “…some public perception on refugees from certain countries being dangerous and a threat to the country has challenged not just the agency, but more importantly the refugees that are living here.” Because of the rising population of immigrants and refugees in Richmond, Peak stated that one of the major needs of RIS is ongoing volunteer support to assist in many of the multiple services that immigrants and refugees need when they arrive to help them towards self-sufficiency. The charity needs volunteers for teaching English as a Second Language classes, assisting in setting up apartments, transportation for refugees to various appointments, mentoring refugees in navigating the public transportation system, and to learn more about immigrant and refugee communities to create opportunities for socialization. Peak also provided a story describing an example of the type of work the RIS has done. (The names in this story have been changed to protect client confidentiality.)

As American involvement wound down in Iraq and Afghanistan, some nationals who helped the U.S. became targets themselves. A dozen refugees who are of a status called Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) from Afghanistan and Iraq arrived in Roanoke in 2014, all coming because they had worked with the American military, and it was no longer safe for them to remain in their home countries. SIVs have taken advantage of the opportunity to begin a new life in the United States. They have quickly become employed and joined their community, and several have already been promoted thanks to their strong English skills and work ethic. With the help of Commonwealth Catholic Charities and the support of the Roanoke community, they are well on their way to establishing themselves in their new home. The Touma family sees a connection between the aid American armed forces gave their people in Iraq and the help their family received when they came to the United States as refugees several years ago. Thanks to this support, they are well established in their community. The parents are both employed, and the children are excelling in school and sports. The parents remind their children of what they experienced as they fled Iraq, and they foster in them a feeling of gratitude. Mr. Touma says, “Every day we pray for peace in Iraq, but it is no longer our home. Our country gave us life, but the people who were there for us were Americans.” The Touma family is just one of the many families Commonwealth Catholic Charities has helped through their RIS program.

There is a whole population of people in Richmond that many people in the Collegiate community have never experienced. With populations of immigrants and refugees rising in not only in Virginia but also in the United States as a whole, it is becoming increasingly important to interact with this group of people that will make up an even more significant portion of our nation’s population in the future. Moreover, the immigrants and refugees I have met through personally working with the STAR and Saturday Academy programs are some of the most fascinating people I have ever met in my life. They always have smiles on their faces and are so grateful to simply be in the United States. Collegiate makes it extremely accessible to get involved with immigrants and refugees in Richmond. The programs that Collegiate offers are indescribably valuable and life-changing experiences.

For more information on how to get involved with any of these programs, contact Meg Billett at billettm@ymcarichmond.org, Esperanza Soria Nieto at esoria@collegiate-va.org, or Paige Peak at Paige.Peak@cccofva.org

You can read more of The Match’s coverage of both national and international immigration and refugee issues HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE

About the author

Kate Kinder is a junior at Collegiate