How Lowell Welcomes Refugees: The International Institute

This is the third in a series of posts about immigrants and refugees in Lowell. The first explored the economic impact of refugees, and the second was an interview with two Iraqi immigrants about their experiences and impressions of Lowell. We’ve learned that studies show that refugees are a long-term tax benefit for most communities, but they face special challenges when first arriving. For our third post, Aurora and I talked to Derek Mitchell at the International Institute of Lowell about their services and challenges. Although we know they help refugees, we think not many people actually know the broad range of ways they help—and why they’re always looking for volunteers!

Derek Mitchell

As we entered the International Institute of New England Lowell office,[1] Aurora and I marveled at the activity around every corner. This was a true mosaic of races, ages, backgrounds, and genders; a microcosm reflecting the brilliant diversity of Lowell. We were visiting the Institute to speak with Derek Mitchell, the site director for the International Institute of New England’s Lowell office. Readers may remember Derek Mitchell from his 2013 run for Lowell City Council, but he is busy every day coordinating IIL resettlement activities.

As we discussed in our first post, the United Nations Refugee Agency essentially defines refugees as those who have fled their country for fear of racial, religious, ethnic, or political persecution, or for fear of war or violence. The UN counted 10.4 million of these registered refugees in camps, shelters, and urban areas, not including 4.8 million living in camps in the middle east or the about 28.8 million who have been displaced, but have not crossed an international border.

Of the 10.4 million registered refugees, only about 1% are resettled annually, 0.5% in the United States. The US Bureau of Population, Migration, and Refugees has cooperative agreements with organizations like the International Institute, providing funding for basic resettlement services. Although over 50% of the Institute’s operational budget comes from this contract, the ESL program, youth program, and other programs are reliant on private funding. This is by design: the federal government wants to locate refugees only in welcoming communities, and organizations like International Institute must create that community buy-in to raise private capital and in-kind donations, such as furniture from the Wish project.

Mr. Mitchell greeted us warmly and gave us a tour of the office. In each room, he introduced us to staff such as Yusuf, who was once a refugee himself. Everyone is working with clients or at computers, framed by large windows opening into views of downtown Lowell. In one room, preschoolers danced around a twirling, brightly-colored parachute. Another room had a bank of computers for volunteers. Nothing was extravagant, but everything was both comfortable and professional. As we walked, Mr. Mitchell spoke quickly, as if there was so much to say in so little time.

Challenges for Refugees

He explained that the International Institute primarily works with refugees in their first two to three months in the United States. Currently, most are coming from Burma, the Congo, Iraq, Somalia and Bhutan, after spending time in camps overseas. Those from Iraq or its nearby countries often carry special challenges: professional-level skills with no US credentials or certification. Finally, some clients are asylum-seekers: they have found their way to the United States and applied through the federal government for asylum. Some of these were victims of sex trade.

Jit Magar, left, fills out a citizenship application with help from volunteer Jaime Serrato at the International Institute in Lowell.

An International Institute of Lowell volunteer helps an immigrant with citizenship application. (Image: Greater Boston Citizenship Initiative)

The Institute is alerted to a new refugee sometimes only a week before they arrive, then they jump into action to arrange and set up permanent housing. They help with other necessities for the client, such as applying for a social security card, setting up school for children, and connecting with other services. Perhaps just as or more importantly, the Institute must acclimate the client to life in the United States. We discussed some of the challenges with the International Institute staff. Some clients haven’t used money in years because of life in camps, most do not speak English, most likely have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from the trauma they experienced in their former homes.

Volunteers: Two-Way, Reciprocal Benefits

We then met with Dahvy, IIL’s youth and volunteer coordinator. Dahvy also helped run the Southeast Asian Water Festival. As children sang “Eensy Weensy Spider” from another room, she explained that the Institute is constantly looking for volunteers that can be on-call to help prior to and during a family’s arrival. Volunteers not only help with setting up with an apartment, but also help clients understand the insider knowledge Lowellians take for granted: How to use crosswalks, how to get around on the bus, and where to access resources such as the library or City Hall. Even skilled refugees may need local knowledge. A trained engineer may have never written a check; a skilled doctor may not know how to address envelopes for the US Postal Service.

However, everyone stressed that it wasn’t just about teaching clients. It was about creating community. In the first weeks, clients can meet so many more people than just staff if they interact with volunteers. Volunteers often seek community themselves, and find it with IIL clients. In addition, Mr. Mitchell explained the importance of “cultural exchange:”

We recognize that the volunteer thing is not just a supplement to our service model, but it’s a wonderful relationship builder with our clients, and there’s more people out on the street that understand who our clients are, and can advocate for them, and raise awareness. -Derek Mitchell

The numbers reflect volunteers’ importance: there’s between two and three volunteers for every one staff member. Mr. Mitchell said that this “is great, but presents some real challenges as well.” Recognizing the importance of volunteers, the Institute has tried to create a volunteer program that isn’t “one size fits all.” This means there’s a great diversity of volunteers: for example, twenty-year olds who do many tasks, mid-career women who have only one free hour a week, and retired people with a lot of time but limits to what they can or want to do.

“We Want to do More”

The Institute’s ultimate goal is for clients to become self-sufficient. This is how the Bureau of Population, Migration, and Refugees measures success. Mr. Mitchell believes that staying busy is the best way to process change and that if a client is unable to work, it gives him or her too much time to “think about things.”

However, the singular measure of “on or off benefits” as success makes him uncomfortable. He wishes the organization could be available for years after resettlement, as figuring out utility bills, insurance, and even building community are long-term tasks that are complex but vital for success. The clients agree, as Mr. Mitchell related:

We want to do more. We want to do a lot more, and I think our clients need more, and want us to do more. I think they get frustrated with us that we don’t do more…

In fact, one area where Mr. Mitchell especially wishes more could be done is in the area of mental health. He says that there are so many logistics and moving parts, it’s nearly impossible to get to “How are you feeling?” and “What do you need as a family to feel secure?” Mr. Mitchell recounted one story in which a client reported seeing someone two blocks from his house jumped and hearing gunshots. Even if the violence isn’t targeted at the clients—and it largely hasn’t been—it can be a trigger for PTSD or make a family feel unsafe.

These challenges are compounded by what Mr. Mitchell identified as a critical difference between refugees and immigrants: immigrants choose to be in the US. He spent some time in Central America, and he saw first-hand that those who left to find work in Honduras or America were entrepreneurial, risk-takers, and industrious. Those who stayed were older or had family commitments. However, refugees have no such self-selection and come with only “the clothes on their back.”

The Resilience Shows Through: Amazing Successes

Burmese children and adults playing tug-of-war

2012 Back to School party organized by Burmese SayDaNar Community Center. Image: Room 50, Jen Myers

Regardless, Mr. Mitchell has observed amazing success. Around 100 people have been successfully placed at Southwick in Haverhill, doing highly-skilled stitching for high-end clothing. The company has created job training programs for the refugees. Others are employed in medical technology or other high-skill fields. However, others opt for service jobs. An individual from Iraq took a job at Hoeffner’s because it was stable, despite being wildly overqualified. Many work at Lowe’s.

Mr. Mitchell explained that they endeavor to partner with a variety of employers, because it is difficult to predict what will be the right fit for a new refugee. They are always looking to expand their partnerships, as many employers do not understand that a new refugee has work certification and may even have specialized skills, but will not have references or a work history and may have language difficulties.

Mr. Mitchell credited the refugees for their own success, noting that whatever difficulties they face in the United States, it pales in comparison to the suffering they have fled:

Whether it kicks in at week six or month six, their resilience shows through. -Derek Mitchell

Their success has not stopped at employment. In only a few short years, many refugees have built community structures. For example, recently, a Bhutanese elder passed away. The entire community came together to cooperatively fund their funeral. However, not every community has come together as strongly, and this is where Mr. Mitchell sees opportunity: “These communities need conflict resolution, space to meet, leadership structure support, help each other. I’d love to do that work to support them create structure.” Currently, this is something the organization does informally.

Part of the need for community building—both within the refugee groups and between them—lies in another difference between immigrants and refugees. While immigrants often have friends or family in their new communities, refugees only rarely do. This is problematic, because social networks are a primary way people get jobs—most jobs are in fact never posted. This ties back into the importance of volunteers. Through them, newcomers meet a far greater circle of potential allies and get plugged into new social networks.

Lowell doesn’t have a monopoly on refugee resettlement. Although the refugee program remains a primarily humanitarian effort, there are economic benefits as well, and cities across the nation work to accept these newcomers. Mr. Mitchell explained why Lowell remains a resettlement community: for the same reason immigrants continue to come. Not only does the region continue to perform relatively well economically, but Lowell also has a history of accepting different cultures, and people “feel comfortable walking around seeing a level of diversity,” in Mr. Mitchell’s words. The International Institute tries to foster this:

We’re trying to play our part of building this ecosystem in hopes that other people will come back and say, “Yeah, we want to help out, we recognize the value of these individuals in our community and want to be involved in being a very positive resettlement.” Because those first couple months and those first couple years are pivotally important in setting somebody up on a track of success and integration vs. isolation and reliance and benefits and multigenerational poverty.

What’s Next: Raising Awareness, Building Partnerships

We asked if Lowell could improve, and Mr. Mitchell took a moment to think before responding. Social service providers always need more translators. If there’s only ten families speaking a certain language, a social service provider has a hard time justifying finding a translator for them. In addition, landlords could better understand the challenges refugees face: although they usually are stable tenants, they have no credit histories or current employment.

He also said the International Institute had only “scraped the surface” in terms of partnerships. They work closely with the school district and Lowell Community Health Center, and moved into the same building as Community Teamwork, Inc to more closely collaborate with them—although they are still working on an integrated handoff process. They also successfully partnered with the Greater Boston Citizenship Initiative to assist refugees and others apply for citizenship—something Mr. Mitchell was excited to talk about.

Exhibit at Mill Girls and Immigrants Exhibit

A new exhibit at Lowell National Historical Park’s Mogan Cultural Center, features the previously untold stories of youth who came to Lowell as teenage refugees. Image: NPS

In addition, the International Institute is cooperating with Lowell National Historical Park. They’re updating the Tsongas Industrial History Center to include information about recent refugee and immigrant groups, and the Park is looking for ways to engage newcomers and to let them know they’re part of a tradition starting with the Irish and continuing today.

However, Mr. Mitchell is always conscious of messaging. For every citizen—whether it be in Lowell or elsewhere—that makes a connection between his or her heritage and the story of a newcomer, there may be another that doesn’t understand the value of newcomers. Mr. Mitchell was familiar with the story we summarized in our first post: one politician in Manchester used the resettlement agency there as a wedge issue, using immigration statistics to attack refugees. If refugees become a similar national wedge issue, the resettlement program may prove to be fragile. Despite its importance, its low profile earns it relatively few champions.

Regardless, challenges keep coming, keeping the Institute very busy. Just as the number of refugees from Burma and Bhutan decline as the camps are cleared, the International Institute is preparing for an influx of Congolese to be resettled in Lowell. This group will present different language, religion, food, and living arrangement needs. Mr. Mitchell also solemnly told us the group’s trauma will be “direct and severe” rather than indirect:

We’ve been told to expect that 100% of women/girls will have been raped or sexually mutilated. Not like, “A high percent.” Like, “Expect every single one of them.”

The International Institute is offering trainings to the schools, social service providers, and others on what to expect with this new population, explaining what trauma means and what it looks like. It doesn’t mean that there’s going to be a terrible burden placed on the community, just that service providers need to be aware and alert. I personally believe each group has come with its own form of trauma, and each group has overcome that trauma to become a vibrant part of Lowell.

We discussed a number of other issues, notably the largest group of refugees in Lowell: Southeast Asians. However, those issues may be tackled in a future post. In addition, the International Institute accepts donations of money and goods. Mr. Mitchell said that pots and pans are especially hard to come by.

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[1] This interview took place before the International Institute moved to its new location on Warren Street.

2 thoughts on “How Lowell Welcomes Refugees: The International Institute

    • Hi, Birgit,

      This may be too late, but we just talked to someone at the International Institute and got your answer. Email Cheryl Hamilton ( to find out what International Institute’s current needs are.

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