Katia Iverson ’12 has come to embrace her not-so-common desire—an inexplicable desire—to be around people unlike herself. Likely related to her curiosity about culture and her passion for service and diversity, this desire has been nurtured since childhood by parents who she says are “faithful givers with incredible hearts for service to others.” They are her strongest encouragers in her chosen field—work with refugee resettlement—which she still sees as her “dream job.”
Drawn to Augsburg by the authenticity of her first campus visit (less than glamorous, she says), and because she perceived “no barriers between the school and the city,” Iverson became immersed in service-oriented thinking early, particularly as part of the first Augsburg group of Bonner Leaders, a national student leadership program.
She was amazed at how her Bonner placements (internships with community organizations) informed and reflected the learning in her classes. By the time she was a senior, she knew it would be important that her placement that year look like a job she’d want to do in the “real world.” Grateful for help from advisor Kristin Farrell, Iverson was pleased to be placed at the Minnesota Council of Churches (MCC) Refugee Services as a bus mentor. In this capacity, she met newly arriving refugees from Nepal, Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Thailand, and rode the bus with them to the refugee services office, cultural orientation class, their child‘s school, and English classes. Some of the refugees spoke English well, others not so well, so communication ranged from hearing their poignant refugee camp stories to being present in semi-silence and exchanging gestures and occasional giggles as they tried to understand each other.
Another of her Bonner placements was at the East African Women’s Center, where she worked with newly arrived refugee women and their children through cooking together, English classes, childcare, sewing, weaving, and professional development. A key learning for Iverson from the center’s director was that young mothers are the “cornerstone of the family if successful integration is going to occur…and the sad part is they are getting the least focus.” Unfortunately, the Center closed in 2012 due to lack of funding.
As an Augsburg student, Iverson found a kindred spirit in Professor Frankie Shackelford, whose cross-cultural courses and “next steps” questions were a guiding force. Another deeply influential aspect of her Augsburg education was a semester in Kenya, which got her thinking about how and why migration happens, both on an individual level and among large groups of people. Her time there was a learning experience about what life can be like when one feels “stuck” in his or her own country.
In addition to her bus-mentor work, Iverson’s involvement at MCC included volunteer work as a resettlement case aide. In 2013—to her great delight—an opportunity arose at MCC as a housing specialist, and she was hired to assist with finding housing for newly arriving families and “secondary migrants” (moving from other states). Later, she accepted a case management position, which works significantly more in direct service to the newly arriving families.
Currently a team coordinator at MCC, she and her staff team plan for and complete the resettlement program’s “core services” for new refugee arrivals, providing a welcoming presence and an encouraging voice in a stressful transition. As described in a recent StarTribune article, Iverson and her team have 90 days from the time of the refugee family’s arrival in which to help them settle in a home, enroll children in school, sign up for public benefits, and connect with a job counselor—all this before stepping back and encouraging them to fend for themselves.
When asked what a “good day” in resettlement work looks like, Iverson mentions (1) successfully finding and securing housing for a family that will arrive in the next 7-14 days (average lead time), and (2) sitting with a new family in their home, sorting through confusing mail they’ve received, answering questions that have come up in past weeks, and hearing about small successes. A rough day? (1) A family has an urgent need and the rest of the day’s plans get scrapped (not uncommon), and (2) The number of priorities outweigh the staff available to attend to the needs. Most days, Iverson says, are a mix of really good and really hard. But the spirit among staffers is energetic and good-natured, which is key.
In Iverson’s view, US efforts in resettling refugees are helping, but we are not well enough equipped to do all that needs to be done. Also, 90 days is not long enough for a refugee family to become self-sufficient, even with English fluency and exceptional work experience; other countries have longer timelines for successful resettlement.
Iverson hopes that by February 2018, after five years of employment at MCC, she will be prepared to work with refugees, in some capacity, overseas—perhaps as part of the processing as families wait to be resettled to a third country. Ultimately, she would like to have enough knowledge of the process to advocate for systemic policy changes.
— Cheryl Crockett ’89