East Central Illinois Refugee Mutual Assistance Center
My name is Kelly Klus- I’m a senior in my final semester (YIKES!) at the University of Illinois. My diploma will say that I’ve studied Psychology and Spanish in my four years here—but I spent so much time dabbling in classes, wandering and changing my major, career plans, and pursuing different interests that I think it would be more accurate if my diploma said something more like ‘Miscellaneous Studies.’ One thing that has stayed consistent is my desire to learn and speak Spanish well, to be able to interact with the wide varieties of cultures that speak Spanish.
This semester, I’ve been volunteering Tuesday mornings at ECIRMAC. The center is a small room in the church on Green Street in Urbana. The room fits four desks, a copy machine, and 3 filing cabinets—but leaves little to no room to maneuver around the room. There are schedules, calendars, and pamphlets taped to the walls in different languages. In a normal day, the doorbell rings every 5 to 10 minutes and the phone rings (what seems like) constantly. Whoever is at the refugee center working at the time will hum, mumble, call out, “What do we need to file this for so-and-so?” “Who has the file for so-and-so?” Spanish, English, and Vietnamese are spoken throughout the day, sometimes interchangeably. Frustrations with DCFS will be expressed, with the process for SNAP forms, with clients’ employers—but jokes are not few and far between and the women are laughing more often than not. Clients come and go, have short conversations or stay and spend time filling out forms with the five women who work at the center. The clients leave the center with more confidence about their taxes, about their health insurance coverage, about the translation of their birth certificates, about bills and upcoming appointments. They leave with more reassurance that they will be able to continue to support their family when they have all of the correct paperwork to continue receiving SNAP cards or have the correct paperwork to obtain and keep a job. I have been consistently surprised and in awe of the sheer amount of people that the women in the center are able to help each day.
This is the first year I’ve lived in an apartment and I’ve been responsible for my own electricity, cable, and car bills. The four girls and I that live in the apartment have a difficult time figuring out the bills, making sure everything is correct and getting them paid on time, and we are privileged to speak the language in which the bills are written and the people speak when we call to have questions. I cannot imagine how difficult, scary, and destabilizing it would be to try to deal with these things in a language in which I was not extremely confident. Receiving a bill, a letter, or a phone call in a language that was strange to me in a country that was relatively new to me would be a very disconcerting event—having a place like the Refugee center is an indispensible resource.