Hyde Park Refugee Project volunteers pose for a picture with materials for the group's socially distanced summer camp. Credit: Hyde Park Refugee Project

HYDE PARK — In the months before the coronavirus pandemic, Hyde Park Refugee Project organizers planned to help a family resettle on the South Side through partner agency RefugeeOne.

That all changed when the pandemic hit and “resettlement [was] completely closed down by the government,” said Lisa Jenschke, one of the project’s three co-directors.

As a result, Jenschke and other project leaders shifted their focus to “the families we already work with and the needs they were going to have” as a result of coronavirus. The project has paid out $11,025 to the families it supports since April.

“One family basically has had no income the entire time; as soon as the restaurants closed down, that was it,” Jenschke said. “Uber drivers, that really fell through the floor as well. If they were still willing to drive Uber — which could be fairly dangerous — they were only getting about 20 percent of the normal volume of rides they had before.”

To raise the funds necessary to help families with their rent, food and bills, organizers started a GoFundMe. It reached its $10,000 goal within a few weeks, according to Jenschke. Funds raised for the resettlement of a new family were also repurposed to help the project’s existing families.

About $9,000 has gone toward families’ rent and other bills. The rest has funded gift cards for groceries and small grants for moving expenses and emergency funds.

“We have been so happy to be able to assist these families during this difficult period,” Jenschke said. “Many have lived with so much uncertainty, war and persecution, living for years in refugee camps and waiting for the chance to resettle in a safe environment. … We hope to provide a little stability and connection for them.”

The $10,000 goal was set at the start of the pandemic, with the idea that the worst of it would subside in three to six months.

“Now we’re all thinking this a much longer problem,” Jenschke said.

Continuing to raise funds will be important for the project — especially with newly resettled families arriving in Hyde Park.

Right now, the Hyde Park Refugee Project “formally sponsors” two Syrian families and provides support for two other Syrian families and one Congolese family.

Though the pandemic prevented the project from resettling a new family this spring, Jenschke said she and other organizers recently learned of two families resettled by other agencies who are now or soon to be in the neighborhood.

They plan to meet those families to find out their needs and offer support.

“The extra infusion of cash via GoFundMe means that we were able to help our current families, [and] we now are still in a position to welcome a new family,” project founder Dorothy Pytel said.

The financial relief program is just one aspect of the project that’s continued through the pandemic, alongside an English tutoring program and a summer camp.

The tutoring program has allowed the refugee project to expand its reach to asylum seekers, said Josey Mintel, the project’s coordinator at Bethany House, a safe house for young immigrant women.

The difference between an asylum seeker and a refugee: The former is awaiting a decision on their asylum application, while the latter has already been granted asylum. Both terms refer to people living in the U.S. with legal permission.

Through the project’s tutoring program, the asylum seekers of Bethany House receive weekly, one-on-one English lessons. The lessons help residents continue their education as they pursue refugee status.

Many of the women recently turned 18, meaning their asylum cases are processed separately from their families. The house provides them an alternative to living alone in one of Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s adult detention centers.

“There have been a ton of [coronavirus] outbreaks at detention centers and facilities,” Mintel said. “That makes Bethany House all the more important because those asylum seekers have another place to go.”

The tutoring sessions began in February in-person, but have shifted online due to the pandemic. Virtual learning “is not ideal” for asylum seekers already adjusting to a new way of life, Mintel said, but she is happy to see the project adapt and continue to work with Bethany House residents.

The project’s free summer camp for refugee children, which will wrap up after this week, has also been forced to adjust to social distancing.

Rather than taking trips to Shedd Aquarium or hosting group art projects, the camp has provided materials for art projects and science experiments, books, games and more for pick-up every week.

The University of Chicago’s virtual sports camp and dance lessons from camp director Olivia Issa have also been incorporated into the camp.

Despite social distancing, the 44 children participating in this year’s camp is a significant increase over the prior two years, Jenschke said. The programming was funded by neighbors’ donations and a $5,000 grant from the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Hyde Parkers’ support for refugee families is “still happening even though we’re still not able to be in the same place every day,” Jenschke said. “You realize how connected we are, even when we’re having to stay apart from each other.”

You can donate to the refugee project here. Those interested in tutoring, mentoring or working on the project’s website can fill out a volunteer application.

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