Photo by Brian Kaiser.

Refugee Road

“So many focus on only one part of the story—only on hardships and barriers and trauma and horrific experiences that people have prior to coming here,” Nadia Kasvin says of the refugee and immigration experience. “And then they focus on another part, which is how tough it is to start here. But nobody tells the whole story, and that’s frustrating, because the whole story is not this or that. The whole story is everything.”

For Kasvin and her partner Tatyana Mindlina, co-founders of US Together, the immigrant experience is about getting results: bringing knowledge, skills, and drive to a new situation, and making the situation and yourself better in the process. It’s not just about surviving; it’s about thriving.

“It took a lot of work, but we didn’t do it on our own. Along the way there were always people who helped us out. Now it’s our turn to give back with this knowledge and understanding.”

“Both of our families were really blessed with being successful,” says Kasvin, as she tells me her family’s impressive resume of educational and professional achievements, including Ivy League schools, graduate degrees, and small businesses. “It took a lot of work, but we didn’t do it on our own. Along the way there were always people who helped us out. Now it’s our turn to give back with this knowledge and understanding.”

In 2003, Kasvin and Mindlina, refugees themselves, began responding to the needs of the Russian-speaking population of  Columbus, at first providing primarily translation services. Fifteen years later, those efforts have grown into US Together, a statewide refugee resettlement and comprehensive immigration integration program, employing over forty people and 217 translators who speak 76 languages in Columbus, Cleveland, and Toledo. Many of their former clients are now caseworkers and program managers.

US Together offers over 30 programs to meet social, economic, and civic needs, helping clients with everything from language to citizenship to investing, following the journey that newcomers tread as they reinvent themselves in a new culture that has often has more opportunities and choices than newcomers have previously experienced.

“The same people are coming back for different services,” said Mindlina. “Resettled peoples are coming for help with a green card and then they’re coming in five years for their citizenship applications. Basically, what we’re doing is what is needed in the community—trying to create programs around that so people get help when they need it.”

The individualized approach has created some unexpected outcomes.

“Several women graduates of our program started a catering business, using the strengths that they have,” said Kasvin. “We helped them with advertising and putting together brochures and menus. It’s not something we’re set up to do. We don’t have a program in Columbus helping women to start businesses, but as a result of our women’s empowerment program, that was the result. It’s really amazing.”

Travel bans and executive orders have changed life for immigration services. Refugee admissions were at an average of 96,000 per year to be integrated into the total US population of 325,000,000. That number of admissions fell to a ceiling of just 45,000 possible new arrivals. Delays and diverted resources for processing cases meant that only about half of that number was actually resettled. This fiscal year saw a further lowering of the ceiling to 30,000.

However, the decrease doesn’t mean US Together is ready to close shop.

“Just because less refugees are coming doesn’t mean we have less work. We have more work,” said Kasvin. “We just address different issues. We have people coming in every day asking about their families. People may be traumatized. People may be depressed. Or people may be wanting to know about their rights.”

I ask the women if, despite the bleak picture for arrivals, there is still an optimism for the United States. Is the United States still seen as a place of opportunity where people can begin their lives again? Smiling, they tell me they believe so.

“Otherwise it would be devastating. Can you imagine?” said Kasvin. “People need something to believe in,” Mindlina adds.

Both Kasvin and Mindlina point to the innovation that springs from diversity, the innovation for which the United States, a nation of immigrants, is known. Kasvin mentions Russian immigrant Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google, whose father, a professor of mathematics, decided to emigrate to the United States after attending a conference in Poland, conversing with other academics behind the Iron Curtain, and finding a new intellectual freedom.

“This country has a lot to offer, but we also have a lot to offer this country,” said Kasvin. “It’s mutual. We benefit from being here and this country benefits from us being here.

For more, please visit ustogether.us.

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