KANSAS CITY, Kan. (Mennonite Mission Network) – Hannah Klaassen helps the refugee families that enter her door at Jewish Vocational Services and Catholic Charities navigate their new society. But not only that. Klaassen hopes that through listening to their stories, her work might lead to a more personal connection with clients.
It turned out that baseball, a few Kirundi words and laughter were all the language needed to form a bond with two of her smaller clients.
Klaassen, a Mission Network Mennonite Voluntary Service participant, is serving as a job placement specialist and assistant for many clients, including a family from Burundi with two young boys who speak only in Kirundi. With the help of a 17-year-old interpreter (a recent refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo), who speaks Kinyarwanda, a language similar to Kirundi, Klaassen has helped the family negotiate the complex healthcare and school systems in the United States.
She makes sure that the family has access to transportation to and from medical clinics and job interviews. She also accompanied the boys to back-to-school night and their first day of school, and travels with them on what they call “adventures” to the park for soccer games.
Klaassen, a member of Grace Hill Mennonite Church, Whitewater, Kan., is spending her second year serving at Jewish Vocational Services in Kansas City, Mo. and Catholic Charities in Kansas City, Kan., the only agencies involved in refugee resettlement work in Kansas City.
Though communication can sometimes be a challenge, Klaassen is encouraged by what she called golden moments of connection.
To spark conversation, Klaassen printed off a page of Kirundi words from the internet and spent an evening with the family testing the words, learning the language from the oldest son, laughing and playing baseball with the two boys.
The goal of JVS is to help individuals become self-sufficient by providing transportation to health appointments and job interviews, getting children enrolled for school, and providing interpreters for important conversations.
“The whole objective of [our work] is to make sure that [refugees] become self-sufficient,” said Abdul Bakar, refugee job placement specialist at JVS, Klaassen’s supervisor, and a former Somalian refugee.
Bakar now helps to make sure that all new arrivals have a case manager, have their core needs met, and receive training for interviews and entering a new work environment.
Bakar knows that for many, arriving in the United States often brings an initial sense of relief.
“There is peace, prosperity, etc. The dream has been achieved,” he said.
But this bliss is often short-lived, as refugees are often faced with a barrage of barriers that limit what they can do.
“To be a refugee is to be stateless and not to have a country while still the refugee is living in a country,” said Bakar. “You have a document that will not permit you to do what other people are doing because you are a refugee. You don’t see it, but psychologically it has an impact.”
“You see yourself as a secondhand person,” he said.
Abdihakim Mohamed knows well the difficulties of navigating a new country and unfamiliar systems. Born in Somalia, Mohamed was 12-years-old when civil war began.
In 1991, he fled with his mother to Kenya after fighting in his hometown claimed the lives of his father and a brother and left two other brothers missing.
In April 2007, Mohamed and his mother arrived in the United States as refugees and clients of Klaassen and others at JVS.
“I had a lot of worries before I came to here because I didn’t know how things would go on. I didn’t know the situation we were going to face. I didn’t know the system,” said Mohamed.
Klaassen and others at JVS helped Mohamed negotiate the unfamiliar systems in the United States and provided groceries, blankets, bedding, furniture and other basic supplies that Mohamed and his mother would need to start a new, self-sufficient life.
Mohamed now works full-time at a hotel in Kansas City and is learning to navigate the complex systems and programs within the United States on his own.
Although communication across language barriers is often difficult, stories brought by Bakar, Muhammad, the young boys from Burundi and other clients inspire Klaassen to continue her work.
“It is so valuable to me that people are willing to share. It’s moving that right now I’m sort of one keeper of their stories,” she said.