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Disaster Legal Aid Trainings: What do Refugees and New Arrivals Need to Know?

/ Blog Post

On March 4, Robert Flores (he/him/his), Equal Justice Works Fellow at YMCA International Services, hosted a disaster legal aid training titled, “Disaster Preparedness Awareness for Refugees and New Arrivals,” with Kimberly Haynes (she/her/hers), executive director of the South Texas Office for Refugees. This training is part of the first-ever Disaster Resilience Awareness Month organized by Equal Justice Works.

Robert has been an attorney for almost seven years, representing refugees and other new arrivals in claims for asylum, withholding of removal, applying for permanent residency, and applying for United States Citizenship. The South Texas Office for Refugees provides funding to local service agencies for a variety of supportive services including refugee cash and medical assistance, and enrollment in programs that support individuals’ self-sufficiency and successful integration through employment, English language acquisition, and citizenship.

At the session, Robert and Kimberly discussed the systemic challenges to disaster preparedness, recovery, and resiliency within the refugee community. They delved into the nuances of disaster resiliency in the hope of helping refugees and community organizations prepare for the next natural disaster. The United States experiences climate phenomena that are often unfamiliar to new arrivals. From Hurricane Harvey in the Gulf Coast to Super Storm Sandy in the Northeast, the wildfires of the West Coast, tornadoes of the Midwest, and of course the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States has a long and sad relationship with disasters of all kinds.

Refugees and other new arrivals face a variety of roadblocks when it comes to disaster preparedness. They are fleeing in many ways political and other disasters, coming into the United States and now having to navigate all types of disasters, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. Kimberly emphasized the importance of clarifying what we mean when we use the word “disaster,” as it can mean many different things to different people. The Equal Justice Works Disaster Resilience Program uses the International Federation of Red Cross’s definition: “A disaster is a sudden, calamitous event that seriously disrupts the functioning of a community or society and causes human, material, and economic or environmental losses that exceed the community’s or society’s ability to cope using its own resources. Though often caused by nature, disasters can have human origins.”

The discussion also addressed the need for cultural and social awareness of disaster preparedness within the refugee community and making sure advocates take the time to discuss and define the kinds of disasters that may occur in their area with affected communities. Robert and Kimberly examined what the refugee community needs to know about natural disasters and disaster recovery in the United States, such as where assistance might come from or be available from the federal, state, local, and county organizations. They discussed the importance of refugees and new arrivals having a safety plan of who to turn to in the event of a disaster, noting what resources are available, or may become available, and who to look to for accurate information.

Robert and Kimberly also addressed the specific difficulties refugees have in getting the information they need for disaster preparedness, and the obstacles faced by community organizations in getting the correct information to community members like translation to multiple languages, modern technology, and access to good/quality information.

The conversation led to highlighting the ways community organizations can improve their outreach efforts to expand disaster resiliency within the refugee community, such as providers working more closely with the city to distribute information, getting a better understanding of where people go for information, and thinking creatively about ways to engage the refugee community to ensure someone from their trusted circle has access to accurate information that can be shared with others. Robert and Kimberly cited this resource for refugee community and community partners to help better prepare for the next natural disaster:

If your organization is interested in teaming up with Equal Justice Works for Disaster Resilience Awareness Month, please reach out to us at [email protected]

Disaster Resilience Awareness Month is made possible thanks to the generous support of Equal Justice Works host organizations: Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida, Disability Rights Texas, Lone Star Legal Aid, Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, Inc., and YMCA International Services.

The Equal Justice Works Disaster Resilience Program is funded by Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, the Bigglesworth Family Foundation, and individual contributions.

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow