Personal Experiences Guide Extension Professional's Work with Iowa Refugees

Anindita Das reflects on her own experiences as she enters a new ISU Extension partnership providing services to Iowa refugee communities

AMES, Iowa  –  When Anindita Das arrived in America, she would have been right to wonder just what she’d gotten herself into.

In December 2000, the native of India and her husband, Biswa, moved to Lubbock, Texas to pursue doctorates in human development and family studies and agricultural economics, respectively. The young couple understood English and had knowledge of the United States, but the images they knew came from movies.

“When it comes to the United States, the parts that movies show, you often think that the U.S. is just L.A. or New York, those big cities, the hustle, the bustle, the lights,” Anindita said.

Lubbock was not that. It was full of open space, cotton fields, and, that December, snow as far as the eye could see.

“The (student-centric) area we moved into was going through a renovation and they were breaking down the houses,” she recalled. “It was winter, Lubbock doesn’t have many trees and the trees that were there didn’t have leaves on them. I was like, ‘Where are we entering?”

The Das family acclimated quickly, but Anindita’s initial impressions of America stuck with her. Now, she’s putting her experiences to good use for Iowa State University Extension and Outreach’s Community and Economic Development division. Anindita recently began a job as a refugee community plan coordinator in partnership with the Refugee Community Planning Group. In that role, she’ll work with ISU Extension and Outreach’s Diverse and Underserved Iowans Team while focusing on the changing demographics of Iowa’s communities.

“Working with this group attracted me very much along with the possibilities of getting to know the group and working with ISU Extension and Outreach,” Anindita said. “To see what are the needs (refugees) have, how we can meet those needs and working with data. My interest in quantitative and qualitative research aligns with it as does going and collecting data so we can better understand their needs, explore, see how it’s working for them and how we can better serve them.”

Central Iowa has become a home for the Das family. After moving to America, the couple lived apart for about five years pursuing separate academic tracks. Biswa moved from Lubbock to Fayetteville, Ark., where he worked at the University of Arkansas. Anindita finished her degree at Texas Tech (with a focus on second-generation Asian-Indian college students who negotiated the conflict of dual cultural identities) and then moved to Charlottesville, Va., to work at the University of Virginia. While there, she worked with a mentoring program that targeted middle-school girls from Albemarle County, which surrounds Charlottesville.

She then reunited with Biswa at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas, and followed him to Ames when he got a job at Iowa State as a faculty member in community and regional planning. The couple has two small children, and they hope to stay in central Iowa for the foreseeable future.

“It was a whole process,” Anindita said. “I’ve lived in so many states in the United States. I have no wishes to go any further. I’m done.”

Building on Iowa's welcoming reputation

Iowa has long been a welcoming portal for refugees, dating back to 1975 when Gov. Robert Ray established the Governor’s Task Force for Indochinese Resettlement. The initial focus was on southeast Asian refugees, including those from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. In the 1990s, that focus shifted to Bosnians. Over the last five years, more than 3,000 refugees have arrived in Iowa, hailing from Burma, Bhutan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eritrea, Iraq and Somalia.

“I think Iowa quite frankly cut its teeth on being a gateway for refugees,” said Teree Caldwell-Johnson, the CEO of Homes of Oakridge Human Services, a key partner of the Refugee Planning Committee Group. “Gov. Ray created a wonderful platform in the wake of the Vietnam conflict and we’ve continued to have a strong reputation for being a welcoming committee. We want to maintain not only that status, but also the community demeanor of being welcoming, and working hard to facilitate the kind of transition that creates opportunities for refugees (so that) they can become a part of the support network for the next wave of folks who come.”

Many newly arrived refugees face serious challenges in acclimating to Iowa and the United States.

Refugees who are resettled by Catholic Charities and the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants have full financial support for 90-120 days after arrival, but are expected to become financially sufficient after that window closes. Lutheran Services of Iowa, the Homes of Oakridge and the United Way work to fill in the gaps afterward, creating what Caldwell-Johnson calls a “continuum of service.”

Factors like the language barrier, finding a job, healthcare, housing, transportation and childcare are all major hurdles.

“I don’t think anyone can imagine going to another country and being asked to figure out how to navigate the territory in 120 days,” Caldwell-Johnson said. “I know I couldn’t.”

Anindita compared it to an English speaker being uprooted and placed in China with a significant language barrier.

“Language is the major challenge,” she said. “For us to understand them and for them to understand us, I think, is a huge challenge. It’s a complete different environment. It’s just like a baby’s being born. They need a lot of support. They are willing to try and they have shown us that they are persistent and they have the desire to try.

“Among all these adversities, they have made it here and they want to be here. They just need our support and we need to understand what they want.”

If refugees thrive as “new Iowans” and are prosperous and independent, she said, everyone is better for it.

“If one group is not thriving it is going to impact every aspect of life,” she said. “It’s going to impact our schools, it’s going to impact our health care system, it’s going to impact our roads, it’s going to impact everything. Our life basically. Our neighborhood, our communities. If they are thriving, well-established and settled, they understand our way of doing things, they are going to be happier and healthier here. At the same time we are going to be happier and healthier.”

With the Refugee Community Planning Group, Anindita will take on duties that had been spread throughout a group of volunteers for the past two years, lending a sense of organization and focus to the group’s mission. She plans on using research to understand the refugee community, the service providers, the stakeholders, priorities and goals to make a more efficient, organized network that can help new Iowans acclimatize easily.

“She has strong academic credentials and a wealth of background and expertise to our work, with the research she’s done and the area of discipline she’s focused in,” Caldwell-Johnson said. “Combine that with the fact that she’s an immigrant to our country herself, for us it’s a perfect way to not only gain her expertise in supporting work, but enlisting someone who has her own experience in her transition to this country gives life to her work.”