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Service Spotlight: the Refugee Empowerment Center

This summer, myself and The Smile Project’s Marketing and Logistics Manager, Zack, set out on a 56-day cross country journey to spread Kindness across America. One way we did this was by orchestrating a major “Pay it Forward” project from city to city. One group would create, collect, or build something for the next group in a different city or state. Then that group would pass something on to the next.

What we saw was people taking care of people without stopping to wonder about the recipients’ race, religion, sexual orientation, or political ideologies. It was a really beautiful thing. You can read more stories from the road here.

One of my favorite “Kindness Links” came in Omaha, Nebraska. We had been in Rapid City, South Dakota where we worked with Dress for Success and Emerge. Early on in the trip, Emerge told me they would make friendship bracelets for our next stop. I decided to look for a nonprofit that worked with refugees in our next city. That’s how I came across the Refugee Empowerment Center and Marilyn Sims.

We visited their office and met a group of refugees in an English class. Thanks to our friends in South Dakota, we were able to give each student a bag with two handmade friendship bracelets (one for them and one for a friend) and a kind note. It was amazing. The students helped us create cards of hope and inspiration which we took to a mental health care facility at our next stop in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

I had the most incredible time in Omaha and a big part of that was thanks to our friends at the Refugee Empowerment Center who I would like to highlight now. Without further ado, allow me to introduce Marilyn Sims, Executive Director.

Liz: Let's start in traditional Smile Project fashion - give me a "Happiness is."

Marilyn: I am happiest when I am living out my purpose and spending time with my grandchildren.

Liz: Tell me a little bit about the organization.

Marilyn: The Refugee Empowerment Center (REC) is a resettlement agency that resettles approximately 200 refugees per year. The agency was formed by Sudanese refugees in 1997 as the Southern Sudan Community Association (SSCA). The agency was originally established to address the educational and social support needs of the growing Sudanese population in Omaha. In 2001 we became a resettlement agency as an affiliate of the Ethiopian Community Development Council. In 2015 we changed our name from SSCA to Refugee Empowerment Center.

Some of our programs include: Reception & Placement, Employment Training, Job Placement, ELL – 3 levels, Drivers Education, Preferred Communities, and Cultural Orientation. Check out this great video about the Cultural Orientation Program.

Liz: Can you talk a little bit to the community you are working with?

Marilyn: Never before has the world witnessed such a dramatic scale of human suffering. Today, 65 million people—24 per minute—are displaced worldwide by conflict and persecution. Over half of the world’s refugees are children.

Myth: Refugees are a drain on society.

Fact: Refugees start businesses, pay taxes and contribute to their communities.

Refugees give a boost to our economy. Many are doctors, farmers, scientists, economists, and teachers. They may start out in entry level positions when they first arrive, however before long they are starting businesses and contributing to the communities in which they live. It is estimated that 50% of refugees are children.

Here’s an interesting fact – Blue Jeans, Hot Dogs, were invented or created by people who came from other countries. America as we know it could not exist with the contributions of refugees and immigrants. Even “God Bless America” was written by Irving Berlin, an immigrant from Siberia.

Liz: What is the driving force behind what you do?

Marilyn: Knowing that because of our efforts individuals and families will have an opportunity for a better life free from fear and persecution. I have a driving passion for helping others succeed and developing partnerships and programs that will empower and unleash the potential within our clients and staff.

Liz: What does "service" mean to you?

Marilyn: Giving/sharing your time and talents for the betterment of others without expecting anything in return.

Liz: How can people get involved?

Marilyn: Please support REC through donations. Due to the decreased number of arrivals, REC needs ongoing funding to continue to serve refugees in our community. Employment training, social supports and educational classes are key to ensuring refugees integrate well and become self-sufficient. If you believe in this humanitarian work please reach out to your network, friends and family and encourage them to donate. Donations can be made on our website

Liz: Anything else you'd like to add?

Marilyn: Just something I would like us all to think about. If you were forced to leave your country with just the clothes on your back, where would you go? Would you hope that strangers would be kind and caring? Would you hope for patience and understanding as you learn about your new surroundings? Would you hope that you would not be judged because of your culture or language?

Liz: Do you have a last piece of advice?

Marilyn: Never dim your light because others are blinded by your brilliance.

I am so inspired by everything Marilyn and her team are doing. But right now, they need help. Due to cuts in federal funding (by over 48% in 2017). The refugee admissions goal for next fiscal year is set at 30,000 - the lowest level in U.S. history. For nearly four decades, the average refugee admissions goal has been 95,000. To ensure they continue to serve their newfound neighbors, they need to raise $150,000 over the next few months. Please consider making a small donation if you are able or share this information and the donation link here with others.

Bonus Question:

Liz: Do you have a favorite quote?

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

-Maya Angelou

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