PHOTOS & STORY By Kevin Coleman
A group of Congolese refugees were walking along West 30th Street one day and saw something that reminded them of home. It was the Trinity Lutheran Church with its rustic brick façade and three red doors. The church reminded them of the place they used to pray back home in Africa, so they decided to ask if they could worship there.
Inside, a non-profit called Building Hope in the City was working with Cleveland residents on issues such as literacy and inequality. The organization did outreach work with various groups of marginalized people but had yet to begin working with refugees. They met, and The Hope Center was born.
The Hope Center, 15135 Triskett Rd., is headed by director Eileen Wilson, a travel enthusiast and the daughter of two German immigrants who came to the United States in the 1950s.
“We didn’t go and find refugees,” Wilson said. “They found us.”
The Hope Center began its service in 2015, with a group of just 25 immigrants and refugees. At the end of February, it will celebrate its four-year anniversary, with over 200 people walking through the door each week.
Wilson, a former Information Technology professional, began her career of outreach after being laid off from her job. It prompted her to ask to help teach Bhutanese refugees to speak English.
“I, like many people, thought ‘Where is Bhutan?’ ‘What is a refugee?’ How did I not understand what was going on in the world?” Wilson said.
It was during this time that Wilson began to notice a gap in the assistance provided to immigrants and refugees as they integrated into their new communities. The main refugee resettlement agencies in Cleveland are funded to provide aid during the first 30 to 90 days after a refugee’s arrival in the country. After this window, they are expected to attain employment, have their children in school, and be self-sufficient.
Although these agencies will assist in any way they can beyond this window, there are always new refugees arriving and funding is limited.
Wilson noticed that a crucial time to help refugees move from a place of mere survival to becoming thriving members of the community was approximately one year after resettlement.
“Many of them would live their entire lives between work, their home, and confined to their native culture,” she said. “This doesn’t allow them or their families to move forward.”
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Virtually every refugee comes to America in situational poverty. They often arrive on our shores with only a suitcase and sometimes several children for whom they must provide. The Hope Center aims to ensure this situational poverty does not become generational poverty.
To accomplish this goal, The Hope Center provides a vast array of classes and services to help refugees thrive in Cleveland. One of the most important resources provided by The Hope Center are the mentors who are assigned to an individual or family and guide them through their journey of assimilation.
There are currently approximately 25 mentors each working with a family for about six months. The nature of the mentorship is completely dependent on the individual needs and goals of each family. In addition, The Hope Center offers English courses, preparation for the U.S. Citizenship exam and legal assistance from the full-time attorney on staff. There is even a small café from which to get snacks and refreshments between classes, along with a van providing transport for those residing within a two-mile radius of the center.
Next month, The Hope Center will begin a program for its members to prepare for and earn their GED — a monumental accomplishment which will alter the trajectory of their lives and the lives of their families.
Offering these life-changing services would not be possible without the love and generosity from the residents of West Park and greater Cleveland. Sixty-percent of The Hope Center’s funding comes in the form of donations from individuals and churches, while the rest is provided by grants and various foundations.
To assist in their own funding as well as provide work experience for its members, Building Hope in the City opened the Common Threads thrift store (22049 Lorain Rd) in June of 2016. There are approximately 20 immigrants and refugees from The Hope Center staffing the store at any given time.
It didn’t take very long for Common Threads to become a shining example of the contributions that can be made by our new neighbors. The upscale thrift store turned a profit after just two short years, as well as won Cleveland Scene’s best thrift store award in both 2017 and 2018.
While Wilson has been elated by the community’s support in reaching out to immigrants and refugees, she hopes people will hear their story and feel inspired to get involved.
“The Hope Center isn’t just a place for refugees,” she said. “It’s also a place for Americans to interact with the world around them.”
The Hope Center is always looking for any help they can get from generous Clevelanders. To get involved with refugees and their loved ones, you must complete a brief background check, child safety course and short seminars; such as “Building Hope 101” and “Refugee 101”. Altogether, these courses amount to approximately four hours of training.
Upon completion of these preliminary requirements, volunteers are then given a choice between becoming a mentor or assisting The Hope Center in some other way. For instance, assisting with tutoring sessions which are held at the center every Tuesday and Thursday or looking after children while their parents are in class. One neighbor shows his support for The Hope Center by
providing lawn care. Another generously donated playground equipment for the newcomer’s children.
Wilson attributes countless Hope Center success stories to the volunteers who take time out of their schedules to reach out and touch the lives of people who weren’t given the same chances in life.
“They don’t need us to save them and to hold their hands,” she said. “They just need to be given support and the tools to succeed.”
You can find further information about The Hope Center’s mission as well as upcoming events and ways to get involved at https://buildinghopeinthecity.org/cleveland/the-hope-center/.
On March 9th, The Hope Center will be screening ‘On Exile’ for the neighborhood at 1 p.m. The movie was produced by the Community Development Corporation at Kamm’s Corners and follows the stories of several refugees who are residing in Cleveland today.
Wilson hopes residents of West Park and beyond will join them for the screening and perhaps decide to get involved.
“I really want the neighbors to know that we want to be part of their community,” she said.
“There’s so much talent here and they can help us in ways we have yet to fully realize.”