“It’s really difficult to say what a day is like for a caseworker,” Olga Mbongo says. “You might only finish two things from your to-do list.” The rest of your time might be filled responding to emergencies and urgent needs. You might rush to answer phone calls from refugees who are concerned about notices they receive in the mail. You might need to drive a refugee to the hospital. And you might work in front of a computer, detailing the services rendered as case notes. This is what a day in the life looks like for Olga, senior caseworker at the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Salt Lake City. Everything is subject to change.
The main role of caseworkers at the IRC is to be an advocate for newly arrived refugee families and individuals. Caseworkers help refugees become self-sufficient by supporting their needs when they first arrive in the United States and empowering them to do things on their own. When refugees first come to Utah, they need time to adapt to their new environment. Caseworkers show them what doors they can open. They help them enroll in temporary benefits, like food stamps, sign up for ESL classes, connect with other essential programming at the IRC, navigate relationships with their landlords and so much more.
Olga originally worked as a caseworker for World Vision in the Democratic Republic of the Congo where she helped people living in poverty. After she and her husband moved to Utah, he found her current position at the IRC. Olga wanted to continue her work in America, but worried that she did not know enough English. After her interview, she discovered she could communicate and continue doing the work she thrived in. “You cannot do everything by yourself, though,” she says. “Teamwork is really important.” Everybody at the IRC in Salt Lake City has always been there to help each other so she can rely on others when she is overburdened.
On paper, the role of a caseworker is to review reports related to individuals and families and assess their progress toward self-sufficiency or specific milestones on their path to resettlement. In the day to day, though, Olga receives a myriad of calls ranging from people celebrating their citizenship to people anxious about a benefits notification that could mean their family would lose access to essential supplies that month. In addition to Olga’s role as a senior caseworker, she also provides focused support to families and individuals with special needs. “It’s not really easy,” she says. “It takes longer to become self-sufficient for them.”
"It always seems difficult until it's done."
Although some of her clients have limited mobility, they often find ways to accomplish their tasks. She might plan to help a client pay their rent only to learn that another member of the refugee community picked them up so that they could make their payment. “We think these clients rely on caseworkers, but no,” Olga says. Reflecting on the way that refugees in the community support one another, Olga says, “My conclusion is even if they say they have no one, they do.”
Many refugees come to the United States not understanding English. After only a couple of months, they begin to speak to Olga in English on the phone to show their progress. Olga makes a point to answer every call, even on weekends, just in case of emergencies. Once while she was on a drive with her husband, her phone began to ring. Expecting an important call, the client on the other end began to laugh. “You always call to check on us,” she explained to Olga.
“If [my clients] call,” Olga said. “It’s not only if they have problems, they call because they care.”
It always seems difficult until it’s done. Olga always has this written at the top of her agenda. Even when she finds herself exhausted, she realizes that the work is “not impossible because I end up doing it.” When she thinks she cannot take it, Olga looks back on the successes and tells herself: “there are people out there who need my help."
You can support Olga’s efforts and the efforts of the resettlement team to help newly arrived families achieve self-sufficiency and positively integrate into our community by making a gift of support to our work today by visiting Rescue.org/GiveSLC.