Thursday, April 7, 2011

Women's programs build community, confidence

Kristen Damron understands the Chinese proverb that "women hold up half the sky." She also knows that refugee women have a particularly challenging situation ahead of them when they are resettled in the United States. Kristen is the Women's Programs Coordinator for Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services (LIRS) in Denver.

In her work, Kristen sees that refugee women are expected--by their families and by their communities--to keep up with their roles as homemakers, mothers, and wives while also facing the often incredibly difficult challenges that resettlement brings. Kristen stated that, "Women are a marginalized population, regardless of which community they're in. They have a number of disadvantages. Within the refugee population, they're the backbone to a household and are tasked with raising the kids, running the household, as well as getting a job. They are the key to the family's success in the U.S., even if the family doesn't realize that. The greater the woman's success, the greater the chances of her family's success."

Women are less likely to take time for themselves and to take care of their own needs, even though they would benefit from support during the resettlement process. In many cultures, men don't share in child care or housekeeping responsibilities, and this means that women's adjustment and familiarity with a new culture may lag. Within the Colorado Refugee Network, the in-home ESL tutoring program is one program that strives to address some of the issues of isolation and language deficiency that refugee women may face. This program, however, addresses the issues one woman at a time, but can't build a support system within each ethnic community.

LIRS offers several programs specifically to support and empower refugee women. According to Kristen Damron, "The programs are designed to be supportive, holistic, and empowering for the women. They're supportive in that women are often somewhat excluded from integration into American society because of language, education, social barriers, and family responsibilities. Our programs give these women a way to come together and support each other. The programs include financial literacy, WorkStyles for women (a job readiness course), community support groups, a microenterprise program that also partners with A Little Something (the Denver Refugee Women's Crafts Initiative), and most recently, a health awareness and education program.

In the financial literacy program, a partnership with Emily Griffith Opportunity School, the group talks about the basics of household finances and money (in general) in the United States. The women's care groups bring together women from the same ethnic community for gatherings at the apartment complexes where the women live. They learn about their rights and responsibilities in the United States, they discuss topics related to domestic violence and personal safety, and they work on life skills, but also build supportive relationships with each other over the course of the sessions. To see a group in action, take a look at the video posted here.

Currently, the Women's Care Groups are in need of volunteers. Volunteers can provide transportation for the women who live at sites other than where the gatherings take place. Volunteers are also needed to work with the community leaders in helping to lead their groups. Two volunteers work with each group. Right now there are four groups, but Kristen hopes to expand that to at least eight in order to accommodate more participants.

Later this spring, Kristen will launch the first Women's Health Walk and Fair in Cheesman Park in Denver on Saturday, May 14. According to Kristen, "We wanted to create a special event to commemorate National Women's Health Week. We wanted our event to to be special and to celebrate these women, their health, and their importance in their families, and we wanted to do that in a way that would bring the rest of the community--what we call the "receiving community" together with these newcomers. We also wanted to create a way to help these women see that they're valued and their health and their bodies are valued. We also want the women themselves to be involved with and excited about the event and the concepts we're presenting.

The Women's Health Walk and Fair is free and will feature guest speakers, health education information, cultural offerings, nutrition information, and yoga in the park. Volunteers are needed to help with the event, especially those with a background in healthcare. Also, Kristen had hoped to provide event T-shirts for the participants, but there is no funding for that. A donation of event T-shirts would be gratefully accepted!

If you would like to volunteer at this event or with a Women's Care Group, please contact Kristen Damron at

Kristen said that volunteering isn't the only way to help refugees have a better resettlement experience. "Really, the first thing people can do for refugees is to be friendly. Smile, have enough guts to start a conversation--even if you're waiting in line, go ahead and strike up a conversation--and don't be afraid to have a welcoming demeanor. Just starting that conversation will make someone very happy because you've acknowledged that they are here and they are included."