Sustaining Programming in a Virtual World

2020 was full of remote problem solving with new challenges appearing every week. There were so many elements that were completely out of our control which so heavily affected the lives of our clients. While we have figured out working solutions to the circumstances, the logistics of our day to day work remains a work in progress. All problems are intersectional, and we were unable to address one issue without entering another conversation with a different focus area. From my perspective, the largest challenge of 2020 was feeling helpless - like I couldn’t assist my clients in the way they needed.

We normally offer citizenship classes in our offices, but we switched to an individual approach when we moved online. Instead of leading group sessions, myself and volunteers scheduled individual calls with clients to teach them the material. Thanks to our existing infrastructure of volunteers, we had the capacity to make this work. Many clients benefitted from this new method because citizenship classes are where you see the largest difference in pre-existing knowledge. With in-person classes, some citizenship classes can be boring for clients. That is the challenge of managing a multi-level class. Individual sessions allowed clients to learn at their own speed, and lower literacy students were able to go at a difference pace. All clients were able to explore in greater depth the topics they were interested in. For our ESL (English as a Second Language) classes, we saw the opposite effect. When learning a new language, it is beneficial to be in an interactive group. Typically, this allows clients to learn from each other. Additionally, many of these clients have only been here a short period of time and may not have stable access to Wi-Fi in their homes. This made it harder to reach those who needed this service on a consistent basis.

Our Matching Grant program works to connect clients with work opportunities in order to set them up to achieve economic self-sufficiency. The grant that sustains our funding for this program requires clients to attend three classes a week, which did not stop during the pandemic. After doing an informal needs assessment with clients I would be working with, I noticed most of them have smart phones. In order to use less data, I made videos they could watch to access the material. In April we had volunteers make job readiness videos, which we translated into Arabic, Kinyarwanda, Swahili, Russian Tigrinya, Somali, and Spanish.

Looking forward, there is a lot of rebuilding to do. Even if Biden changed the presidential determination on refugees to 95,000 admissions, we would be stretched thin at the local level. Nationwide refugee resettlement agencies have seen so many layoffs as funding and opportunities minimized during the Trump administration. I’m hopeful we will return to our typical capacity, but it takes a lot of intentional effort to bring that manpower back. The challenges of 2020 highlighted existing inequities in American society and will work to open doors for service providers.

The coronavirus pandemic made it clear that it is impossible to function today without Wi-Fi. This has now become a part of the national conversation, and it is more likely to be brought up to legislators at the local and state level. I’ve learned among students that despite the challenges of 2020, their spirits weren’t down. This is a testament to the resiliency and strength of the clients we serve. They were more than willing to be accommodating to the necessary changes. Obviously, they would prefer in-person classes, but they were happy to work with us and understood it was the best option for the time. People are more willing to be accommodating and accepting of new ideas and willing to work with you than I thought previously. This provides a lot of hope as we move forward.


This story is part of a Refugee Communities collection.