Community & Support
Since 2003, African Refuge has been actively engaged in meeting the needs of the Park Hill and Stapleton community. Diverse in nature, community members represent a mix of immigrants and refugees from Africa, the Caribbean, as well as Hispanic and African Americans living together, each with unique and yet similar problems. The community is also surrounded by the largest settlement of Liberians of the Diaspora outside Liberia, West Africa. The area is characterized as a low-income neighborhood, with all its attendant problems: crime, drugs, homelessness and disenfranchisement from the political and social structures surrounding it. Despite community challenges, African Refuge has been able to establish a safe haven where these refugees can begin to rebuild their lives, recover their dignity and promote the well being of their children and families.
Since opening, this volunteer-driven center has helped over 1500 community members, providing such needed services as employment assistance and referral, training in basic computer skills and educational support, mental health and social services, and youth arts, education and recreational programs. More than 150 volunteers/interns from universities to local residents have supported African Refuge's work. The organization has also served as a key liaison to outside groups seeking to work with the Park Hill and Stapleton Community, including the Police Department and Wagner College.
In 2003, the International Trauma Studies Program (ITSP) and a group of community leaders from Staten Island met to discuss the needs of the growing population of West African refugees and immigrants in the Park Hill and Stapleton neighborhoods. The results of this meeting highlighted a number of issues requiring immediate attention: the need of the refugees to overcome disenfranchisement and isolation from the surrounding communities; the need for access to critical social services and entitlement programs; the need to recognize and bring together the diverse cultures within the community; the need to identify and assist members of this community who have been victims of torture and war in their home countries; and most critically, the emerging problems of youth in the community. The outcome of this assessment was the development of the African Refuge Drop-In-Center.
The Drop-In Center was designed as a community resilience project to provide a safe space where community families, whether refugees, immigrants or under-served, could reach their full potential through access to resources, a connection with the larger community and participating in programs designed to their unique needs. The Drop-In Center offers community outreach, provision of an easily accessible location for people to receive services, and the development of family and youth support and psychosocial programs. A design component of African Refuge was partnership with the larger community and civil society, including the recruitment of volunteers to run the day-to-day operations of the Drop-In Center.
In 2005, African Refuge created a research committee comprising of doctorate students from New York University School of Psychology and Anthropology Departments. The aim was to investigate why African immigrant and refugee children were not doing well in school and the lack of involvement of their parents to participate in supporting education, such as attending Parent-Teacher activities. An additional piece of the investigation was focused on mapping available resources in the public school system for this population. The preliminary findings suggested many children from the community who resettled from West Africa had missed one or more school years. However, when enrolled in the New York City public school system, they were placed in classes based on their ages, not their educational level. As a result, many children failed in school. Additionally, the study found that many parents in this community were disengaged from the educational process of their children due to long work hours, mostly in the health care and security fields, as well as their own low level of education and illiteracy. An After School Program was developed to address the academic achievement gap of youth, as well as to provide a supportive environment for academic, personal and social learning and success.
A key objective of African Refuge is to connect the program participants and members of the community to culturally appropriate social service providers, community organizations and government services. In this capacity, African Refuge has established strong links with many important programs in Staten Island and in the five boroughs of New York City, including International Trauma Studies Program/Refuge, Inc., CAMBA, Community Health Action of Staten Island, Staten Island YMCA New Immigrant Welcome Center, Citizens Committee for New York, International Rescue Community Youth Program, Century Dance Center, ROZA Promotions, City Harvest, Community Health Center of Richmond, Fresh Air Fund, Project Hospitality, Evelyn L. Spiro School of Nursing at Wagner College, Immigrant Council of Staten Island, and several local block associations.
African Refuge is staffed by a dedicated mix of skilled professionals and volunteers/interns, and is headed by the Executive Director. To ensure accountability, quality control and sustainability, African Refuge has three levels of governance. First, is the Board of Directors, which is the highest decision-making body of African Refuge. It is comprised of professionals and community advocates from diverse backgrounds and it has fiduciary responsibilities including the power to hire and fire the Executive Director. Second, is the Advisory Board, comprised of community advocates, ordinary professionals from diverse backgrounds and program participants. The goals are to enlist the program participants into program development and decision making processes. Third, Honorary Board of Directors comprised of distinguished business leaders, human rights advocates, environmentalist, clergy and other dignitaries who subscribed to the mission and vision of African Refuge.