Refugees Find Hope Through RISSE in Pine Hills

Bantu refugee children from refugee camps in Kenya in Florida, 2007. Photo via WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

BY Elizabeth Valentin
Contributing Writer

In the midst of change in political climate, refugees and immigrants have become a topic of conversation around the nation. The Refugee and Immigrant Support Service Emmaus (RISSE) offers support and provides resources to refugees in the Pine Hills area. RISSE has aided people from several nations, including

Uganda, Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

RISSE works to assist refugees in all aspects of assimilation into American life; however, the current political climate regarding refugees remains a concern.
Rifat Filkins, executive director of RISSE, says that although they do not openly talk about politics with the children, “they understand the negative attitudes towards refugees and immigrants.” She says that they hear about it and learn about it at home with their families.

David Zimmerman, who works as a teacher at RISSE, recalls the children talking about their fears and questioning if they will be forced to go back to their countries.

Several refugees share the same fear of being sent back to their country, and as a result are afraid of law enforcement. In order to combat this, the Albany Police Department is beginning to work with RISSE to have meetings between refugees and police officers to break barriers and lessen their fears.

“They need help, we are human beings. I understand for security purposes, but the administration has to help them, not exclude them,” said Francis Sengabo, co-founder of RISSE, regarding the attitude that the current administration has towards refugees.

RISSE offers English classes for adult and child refugees and immigrants and provides them with the resources to obtain jobs or health insurance. Muthanan Alkhazraji, a driver for RISSE, talks to refugees regularly. The organization offers different levels of English courses, providing three levels to adults and six levels to children.

“All refugees like to learn English. That’s the first thing. Then they need to work to improve their life. If they can’t speak English, they can’t work,” said Alkhazraji.

In addition to helping refugees acquire a job and maintain a good life in the community, RISSE also provides a safe space for them that makes them feel as though they are part of a family. This is a major part in the assimilation process for refugees and immigrants.

Sengabo is a refugee from Uganda. “I came here with nothing except hope. I came here and could not speak English,” he said. He started the organization because he saw that the needs in refugee camps are no different than the needs that exist in this neighborhood.

Shafqat Abbas is an immigrant from Pakistan. She taught English for 20 years in Pakistan and moved to America with her husband a year ago. She now teaches at RISSE and works primarily with the children. “As refugees, they demand a lot of love. I try to be more loving and patient,” said Abbas.

Filkins is proud of her staff and the efforts that they put into helping the refugees that go to them. “The staff is passionate about their work because the children come from families that have gone through so much, so it’s not just academics. Everyone tries to provide love and care,” said Filkins.

Sengabo feels as though he has watched some of the children grow up in the ten years that he has been working with refugees through RISSE. “Some of them are going to graduate from high school and are going to college,” he said.

RISSE works to provide an environment in which the children are able play and participate in activities that they enjoy. Filkins mentioned that a number of the children are registered with Albany Tennis Club, and that they have been working to bring Girl Scouts into the organization so that some of the children can participate with them.

Zimmerman helps to maintain a positive environment for the children. He is working with some of the other employees to create a youth soccer team. He believes that all of the staff are invested in the lives of the children. Working with refugees has changed the way that Zimmerman views the world.

“It has changed me a lot, like, hearing their stories, seeing what they’ve gone through, what they’re still going through, adjusting to America,” said Zimmerman.

RISSE receives funding from donors in the community who contribute to the organization so that it can continue to assist refugees in need. In addition, RISSE offers food to the refugees, while also maintaining connections with the food pantry at theChurch of St. Vincent De Paul.

There are several volunteers who help at RISSE and at the food pantry. Donors and volunteers can look for more information on their website, risse-albany.org, or through their Facebook page.

RISSE works with the city of Albany and the community of Pine Hills to help these refugees to achieve a good life in America. Filkins said, “This program has been so successful because of the community‘s support so far. We look forwards to seeing the support in the future.”

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