Recently, Karen Larsen, communications volunteer at the International Rescue Committee in Denver caught up with Ndeye Ndao to learn more about how she approaches asylee outreach.
About the Asylee Outreach Project (AOP):
The Asylee Outreach Project is an initiative made possible by a grant administered by the Colorado Refugee Services Program (CRSP). It is an outreach effort to connect asylees throughout Colorado with information, benefits and services. The International Rescue Committee in Denver (IRC), leads the effort and works collaboratively with CRSP, along with the other two resettlement agencies in Colorado, the Ethiopian Community Development Council’s African Community Center, and Lutheran Family Services Rocky Mountains, along with a myriad of other partners to provide statewide outreach.
Ndeye Ndao, the coordinator for the AOP at the IRC, demonstrates the perfect balance of graciousness and determination. She anticipated challenges in the first year after the AOP was funded and announced. Being an immigrant herself, Ndeye knows there are people truly in need of the services available to asylees in Colorado and that they might not be aware they qualify for. She also knows how difficult it can be as a newcomer to navigate and connect with available resources, “I am unstoppable, not to brag or anything,” said Ndeye when asked about these challenges as she looks back on Year 1 of the project.
Before providing a review of the program’s first year, Ndeye expressed gratitude to CRSP for Year 2 funding. “This is the only program of its kind in Colorado. If we did not have this funding, we could not continue our outreach,” Ndeye said. “Eligible asylees would not be aware of services available to them. We planted the seeds in Year 1, and now the project is going really well. We’ve got traction.”
Year 1 overview
- While Ndeye and the IRC spearheaded this project, coordination with two other refugee resettlement agencies and CRSP has been critical to the success of the outreach efforts. “I’m only one person; this is my network,” Ndeye said. Organizations and service providers cooperated in Year 1 to connect asylees throughout Colorado with information, benefits and services, including health, employment, English as a Second Language (ESL) training, cash assistance and family support.
- Year 1 focused on outreach to services providers, such as human trafficking service agencies, ESL providers, libraries and other community-based organizations, because they serve asylees who may be eligible for services. Ndeye said these partnerships are essential to spreading the word.
- While community outreach in Year 1 started in the Denver metro area, it expanded into communities like Greeley, Grand Junction and other locations outside the metro area. “The leaders of these communities have their own communication platforms and represent local ethnic communities I am not a part of,” Ndeye said.
- Feedback from Colorado service providers and community leaders has been very positive. They find the information to be useful, thorough and not always easily located elsewhere. They are quick to develop an understanding of legal definition differences among asylees, refugees and other newcomers to the U.S. and their associated eligibility requirements.
Ndeye admits she learned a lot about starting a new outreach program during the first year. “Outreach is not easy,” she said. She discovered gaps in services for asylees similar to those facing other immigrant groups, including reliable pro bono and low bono legal services; interpretation and translation services, especially for individuals who speak minor or indigenous languages; mental health services; affordable housing; and family reunification.
The lack of data on immigrant populations—and service providers—informed how Ndeye prioritized her outreach efforts, particularly in the Front Range. She spent more time in Year 1 than she had expected on research and gathering data she needed to understand the prevalence of asylees in different geographies. “The court system does not gather or share this information. In some cases, I found the best research was word of mouth by attending local events, faith-based meetings and other community activities,” Ndeye said. Yet, the hurdles she faced did not stop her. “I was not going to allow doors to be shut.”
In Year 2 of the AOP, and before COVID-19 challenges, Ndeye refined her strategy. Emphasizing outreach to service providers was the appropriate approach for Year 1, however, as her credibility grows, she intends to focus more on connecting with the different ethnic communities in wider geographies. “COVID-19 does not change the fact that community leaders are both the champions and the gatekeepers. They offer me open doors to their communities,” Ndeye said.
Year 2 objectives:
- Expand to a wider geography within Colorado, including the Western slope, even if outreach is done virtually, rather than in-person.
- Identify and work with community leaders who can make introductions to broader audiences, particularly Latino communities in Eagle and Summit counties.
- Conduct a needs assessment and service gap analysis of asylees in conjunction with the other two resettlement agencies. “We want to learn more about the challenges asylees faced when they came to the U.S., how they are doing now, how familiar they were with the services available to them once they became eligible, and how they learned about services,” Ndeye said. “Then, we can make recommendations to CRSP so that we can all better serve this immigrant population.”
Ndeye also learned a lot about herself while building awareness in Year 1. “There were moments in my work when I faced challenges, particularly when approaching some ethnic communities. And I did get discouraged,” she said. “But then I said to myself, ‘No. I’m not going to let this stop me. I am going to keep going…no matter what.’”