We recently spoke with Shalym Náter Vázquez, Director of Special Projects, at Ibero-American Action League, a member of The New York Equity Coalition, about the work the organization does in Rochester with newly arrived asylum seeker families.
Ibero hosts an award-winning Early Childhood Education Center, several parent engagement programs, and programs for school-aged children, all with culturally relevant and responsive practices in mind. As a human services agency, Ibero aims to be holistic in the services it provides to families and children. From family case management to restorative justice training in schools, Ibero is well-positioned to support Rochester students and their families, from all backgrounds, to thrive. Below is an excerpt from our conversation with Shalym about Ibero’s work with asylum seekers in Rochester.
Melanie, Ed Trust–NY: One of the things that we’re really interested in is the ways our partners are working with asylum-seeker families, and how their communities are responding to the influx of asylum-seekers and migrants in their cities, towns, and neighborhoods. How has Ibero responded to the influx of asylum-seeker families in Rochester?
Shalym: Our motto at Ibero is to be comprehensive. One of the first things we did when we started receiving families in our community from New York City, was to ensure we were there from day one. We have been working with the Western New York Farmworkers Coalition because they have the expertise when it comes to immigration issues and asylum-seeking. During the summer when we started receiving families, we wanted to make sure that the youth who were staying at the hotel shelter were engaged, and that we were doing positive youth development activities with them. We also used our restorative justice program to have healing circles, to give children a chance to talk about whatever they wanted.
We also work with Rochester City School District (RCSD) and the district’s Bilingual Education Council, which advises the district on matters related to bilingual education including curriculum and cultural matters, to help the families. RCSD had their team come to the shelter and complete necessary assessments and enrollment, and educate parents on what to expect, including school choice. They really took the time to explain and prioritize parent choice in finding what school would be the best for each family. Ibero has a permanent seat on the Bilingual Education Council, and we have been educating the families to understand the system, and how they have the power to influence, engage, and contribute to the education of their children by attending meetings and more. Moreover, we have been able to coordinate transportation when the Bilingual Education Council meets for the families enabling them to participate, and, hopefully in the future, become officers that will lead the work with the Bilingual Education Council.
We also have the Migrant Relocation Assistance Program (MRAP), which assists families with rental assistance and social services through case management once families meet the criteria for the program. We find and furnish apartments for the families, and pay rent for up to 12 months, help them with utilities and some other expenses. This program gives them time to focus on other things, and that impacts the wholeness of the child and their education. Part of what we’ve also been doing in the MRAP program and our Community Resource Center is community integration classes for the families, focusing on essential day-to-day tasks like taking the bus and where they can find community resources. We have also been providing community health worker training for the families and English as a New Language classes because once parents have a status that allows them to work, we want them to be trained on things that are of interest to them. Then we can connect training to real employment in the area through the Community Resource Center. In short, that’s what we have been doing to help students and families. We have been that familiar face that they met at the shelter during the summer months, that speaks the language and understands their culture.
Melanie, Ed Trust–NY: That’s incredible. What are some things that school staff, education, equity advocates, like us at The Education Trust–New York, community service providers, and others in and around education should consider when working with newly arrived students and their families?
Shalym: The first thing that I always go with is to look at students, in this case, asylum seekers, beyond the classroom. Do you, as the educator, understand what the student’s family composition looks like? Do you know if they had breakfast this morning? Do you know if the student is a caregiver for younger siblings because the parent must work two jobs? Are you really engaging in that relationship-building from the beginning before you even start talking about math and social studies?
The other thing I always say is, especially when it comes to the new families that we receive, it is so important to go to them before they come to you. A major reason why Ibero is so successful is because we’re boots on the ground. We are in neighborhoods constantly. We’re collaborating with other organizations. We’re not waiting for people to find out about Ibero. At Ibero, we really customize our outreach efforts.
The last thing I’ll say would be to make sure to educate the larger community to welcome new families. We need to be sure to educate our neighbors, institutions, organizations, and others to understand the differences between immigration and migration, refugees, and asylum seekers, and to understand the complexities in these processes. New families arriving in Rochester are not taking away from, but rather adding to the fabric of our community.
Thank you for your partnership, Ibero American Action League, and Shalym! Ed Trust–NY is fortunate to work with such dedicated partners as you.