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Washington State has a long history of welcoming refugees to our communities, and with the recent arrival of Afghan individuals and families, in addition to the COVID-19 pandemic, Refugee & Immigrant Services Northwest (RISNW), based out of Everett Community College, has stepped in to play a key role.

Executive Director Van Kuno has been with RISNW for 30 years, starting as a volunteer after her own refugee resettlement from Vietnam. When she arrived in 1975, after the fall of Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War, she and her family settled in Minnesota, where she earned a degree in biochemistry. They then moved to Snohomish County, where she volunteered at the Refugee Forum of Snohomish County, which would later become RISNW. After a year, she got a paid position with the Forum, and soon after became its executive director.

Kuno said she wanted to partner with North Sound ACH because of our similar philosophies and mission statements. North Sound ACH provides RISNW support in three overlapping areas: the Community Health Worker/Promotores fund, the COVID-19 response fund, and the recently established Afghan refugee resettlement support fund. “Going through the red tape to get funding takes a chunk out of our busy schedule,” Kuno said. North Sound ACH helps with some of that “red tape,” which “allows us to do the job that we’re supposed to do,” Kuno said.

The COVID-19 response provides rapid testing kits, PPE, food and care kits; and the resettlement support fund is used for rent and housing help, bedding, clothes, and household supplies.

Courtesy of Van Kuno / Refugee and Immigrant Services Northwest

Through the CHW/Promotores fund, RISNW has hired a full-time navigator, who helps connect families to resources they need. This has been a great help since many of the Afghan families arrive with only what they can carry. The newly operating welcome center provides mobile dental, COVID-19 vaccines, hot meals, a worship leader from the local mosque, and staff to help families with housing applications, get children signed up for school, and whatever else they need. So far, RISNW has helped resettle 14 Afghan families.  

“When they meet with the navigator, they say what they want to talk about, what they need, then the navigator does research, provides that information back to them, and provides it in a linguistic and culturally appropriate way,” Kuno said.

Kuno said they let the clients direct what they need, but as a refugee herself, she is intimately familiar with the needs and struggles of newly arriving refugees and immigrants. About 10 years after she started working with RISNW, she noticed many Vietnamese and Cambodian refugee women struggling. Early resettlement efforts helped their husbands get jobs, and enrolled their children in school, but sometimes the women would be left behind. They weren’t able to understand letters in English, but many were also not literate in their native language either. They were isolated from their families and even each other.

Today, Kuno provides incoming women with laptops to get connected online –  to chat with family, friends, and local community; use email; learn English; help their children with school – and encourages them to get their driver’s license. A few years ago, she worked with Iraqi families to help the women get their driver’s license, explaining the benefits to both husbands and wives. To the husbands, Kuno would say they then wouldn’t have to leave work to help get the children to appointments, and to the wives, she would explain this would make it easier to go grocery shopping, take the children to school and the doctor’s office, and go see their friends. She employs the same methods with today’s Afghan families.

“If the woman is strong and healthy, the family will be strong and healthy,” Kuno said.

RISNW is open to all refugees, migrants, and immigrants in the area; they often help people from Somalia, Sudan, Congo, Iran, Iraq, Ukraine, Vietnam, Cambodia, Estonia, and Eritrea. There are 10 offices in the area, in Everett, Lynnwood, Monroe, Arlington, Mount Vernon, and Bellingham.

Their services include employment, English as a Second Language (ESL) resources and classes, education and social services, immigration and naturalization, interpretation and translation, and advocacy. Some of their other long-standing partners include the Employment Security Department, DSHS, and WorkSource. Learn more on their website https://risnw.org.

You may also donate to this fund at https://www.aplos.com/aws/give/NorthSoundACH

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