By Daniel F. Le Ray

Jessica Marks '07, director of The Refugee Center Online, uses technology to connect refugees to resources and make U.S. resettlement easier.

WHEN FOUNDER AND DIRECTOR of The Refugee Center Online Jessica Marks ’07 arrived at Whitman, she had always thought she would become a journalist. But a class on religious intolerance, led by Associate Professor of Religion, Gender Studies and General Studies Melissa Wilcox, left Marks “really passionate about every single thing we studied.”

Soon, the wannabe journalist fell into the role of religion major.

Marks’ role today is somewhat more complex. Her nonprofit, The Refugee Center Online, provides refugees arriving in the United States with information on a startling array of topics: from the American education and healthcare systems to cultural differences, from housing and public benefits to resources for learning English and applying for citizenship.

The U.S. resettlement process doesn’t give refugees much choice over where they’re resettled after they get to their new country, Marks said. “When they arrive, there’s a lot of information for them, but not necessarily things that stick with them. It seemed like having a single place to find a lot of information to help you understand American systems could really [be of] benefit.”

Packaging that information in multiple refugee languages, the center acts as both a resource and an online point of contact for newly arrived refugees.

Tej Mishra, board chair of The Refugee Center, is a Bhutanese refugee who was resettled in the U.S. in 2010 after growing up primarily in a refugee camp in Nepal.

“In my first few years in the U.S., I was myself facing the same challenges that the Refugee Center Online intends to help refugees overcome,” he said. “The life of a refugee in their resettled country is greatly shaped by the experience of the first few years.”

Mishra and his family, along with around 100,000 other Bhutanese people, were the victims of forced eviction from their country under the “One Nation, One People” policy of the Bhutanese government, which persecuted citizens who did not speak the same language or practice the same religion as the ruling elite.

Creating positive resettlement experiences for refugees can help them overcome some of the substantial barriers to resettlement, which can range from culture shock to trauma to language acquisition. That alone can be the key to successful, self-sufficient resettlement within their newly adoptive country.

Mishra would definitely, he added, have sought out the center if it had been up and running when he first arrived in the U.S. more than five years ago.

FOR MARKS, THE JOURNEY from religion graduate to social justice advocate has been one of astonishing clarity.

The seed was planted during her first year at Whitman. An Encounters class with Associate Professor of History Elyse Semerdjian was “the first time I ever checked my own privileges and realized that this myth that I really kind of believed in—that everybody pulls themselves up by their bootstraps—wasn’t necessarily true,” she said.

“It’s really [Elyse’s] influence in that class that has driven me to want to work for social justice and work to make the world a better place.”

Marks also took part in the Semester in the West program, where a meeting with Shoshone land rights activists Mary and Carrie Dann was “a lightbulb moment, for my career but also on a personal level.” She realized then, “this is what I wanted to do. I want to work to help people’s voices be heard, to work for underserved communities.”

In her final year, Marks also worked closely with Jonathan Walters, George Hudson Ball endowed chair in the humanities and professor of religion. Her senior thesis—which focused on the way refugees’ religious practices changed after resettlement—won the Adam Dublin Award for Global Multiculturalism.

Walters said that Marks “epitomizes the liberal arts ideal of balancing critical study with personal engagement, each shaping the other.”

When Marks was presented with the Adam Dublin Award and had to give a presentation on her thesis work, Walters said, “she invited and arranged funding for Jampa Nyendak Lathsang, founder of Prayer Flags for Peace, whom she had met in the course of her research, to visit Whitman and give a talk on the Tibetan situation, followed by an interactive project of drawing and then hanging individual prayer flags.” During her presentation the next day, Walters said, Whitman’s campus was “already thus colorfully decorated with hope. In a sense, she continues to hang those flags today, working for, and with, refugees all over the globe.”

The work that Marks does today began in earnest in Washington, D.C., where she moved after graduation, and worked to help immigrants and refugees from Eastern Africa. Next, Marks—who had just gotten married—moved with husband Brian McGuire ’07 to the Thai-Burma border.

Through a program run by Minmahaw Education Foundation—which provides education for disadvantaged young people in Burma (Myanmar)—they both worked with “displaced youth—refugees, children of political prisoners, former child soldiers,” Marks teaching the social studies GED class while McGuire taught GED science.

The value of education for refugees there could not be overstated.

“The students we worked with wouldn’t otherwise have had opportunities to leave a [refugee] camp. Our students actually earned their GEDs and a high school equivalency diploma, and were able to apply for scholarships.” About 70 percent received them, and Marks has stayed in touch with many.

After her return to the U.S. to attend graduate school at Montana State University, the seed for The Refugee Center—a combination of technology and refugee resources—began to grow.

“I was still working with my students and other refugees I knew, and I couldn’t find what I was looking for online,” Marks said.

hand tying ceremony

Although refugees had historically not had tech access during their resettlement, things had now changed.

“For a long time, people thought: refugees aren’t using modern technology,” she explained. “But now, just like the rest of us, they’ve realized the way to stay in touch with your family or to quickly find information is online.”

In the current Syrian refugee crisis, for example, refugees are using smartphones and the internet to aid their flight from Syria and resettlement in Europe. Social media and mobile apps—some developed by refugees who have made it to Europe—are helping those fleeing Syria to find places to sleep and safe passage, to translate words and phrases into their native languages, and to keep in touch with their loved ones.

GIVEN THAT THE PROJECT was launched less than three years ago, the amount of resources collated by The Refugee Center is surprising. Refugees who want to understand how to get their GED, find a healthcare professional, buy groceries to make food from their home country, or apply for legal permanent residency can get a strong start on the center’s website.

To help determine what was of most value for their audience, Marks set up an initial board of sorts, including refugees she had taught or worked with in the past, as well as Whitman graduates like Nikita Parekh ’08 and Matt Schissler ’07 (who had also been on the Thai-Burma border), and Emily Rambo ’07, who serves as a lawyer on the center’s board of directors.

Rambo, who is an attorney in South Bend, Washington, is in her second year with The Refugee Center, “working on things like training board members on fundraising for the RCO and contributing in outreach to donors, RCO users and other potential supporters,” she explained. She also helps with legal questions, board governance, and the sections of the center’s site that deal with rights and laws, as well as religion, in the U.S.

“My work as a lawyer is focused mostly on the underserved, including children,” Rambo added. “I know my efforts in support of the RCO are contributing to making the U.S. more welcoming, making the resettlement process easier and helping newcomers—young and old—become successful and feel like they belong.”

Marks hopes that the transformative power of technology and education can combine to make life better for refugees who are becoming part of American communities.

Marks and her fledgling board spent almost a year doing an in-depth needs assessment: “We created surveys and had them translated into refugee languages, and then had organizations across the country give them to refugees they worked with.”

They then gathered the results and sought to understand what refugees were most in need of; these findings helped them design the center’s site. A major issue that the needs assessments brought up was the isolation that many refugees feel when they are first resettled. And so an important question for the Refugee Center became: “How do you build community and how can you connect refugees to one another?”

One of the ways the center hopes to achieve this is by having refugees submit articles about their experiences. A section of their site, “Refugee Voices,” gathers work written by refugees who have resettled in the United States. So far, food, work and community are frequent topics, though one Bosnian refugee recently wrote about why it matters to her that the American people support Syrian refugees in the current crisis.

“It’s more meaningful,” Marks said, “when you’re hearing it from someone who’s been through and understands some of the challenges you’re facing. Our biggest outreach is having refugees themselves spread the word about the center.”

The Refugee Center also works with multiple organizations that have hands-on experience aiding refugees, thanks to Mishra. In his role as board chair, he has helped involve refugees, works to educate the public about refugee issues and recruits help from the higher education community.

“We bring refugees on board in various capacities,” Mishra said, “because the Refugee Center recognizes the potential and role of refugees themselves in rendering support to the community.”

Two new programs are greatly boosting the organization’s offerings: a citizenship course and soon-to-launch GED courses. Former refugees whom Marks had taught on the Thai-Burma border advised on the creation of the GED program.

The new courses are “purposefully designed with short lessons so that you could work on earning your GED, for example, on a 20-minute bus ride to and from work on your smartphone,” Marks explained.

Education is perhaps the most important hub for what Marks, Mishra and her team are doing. When he arrived in the U.S., Mishra was lucky in that he already had a college degree and good language skills, but even so, “the education system is quite different—ways of teaching, ways students are assessed, assignments. Everything looks different than what you’re familiar with.”

The Refugee Center hopes that the transformative power of technology and education can be combined to make life better for refugees who are becoming part of American communities around the country.

THE AMERICAN RESETTLEMENT SYSTEM is, Marks said, something that people should try to understand before making judgments about refugees.

There are, for example, only three main indicators in the framework that the Office of Refugee Resettlement uses to determine a successful resettlement. One of those is employment: a refugee must accept the first job offer that they receive after arriving in the U.S. This requirement can often mean that their other efforts at assimilation, like language learning, can be indefinitely interrupted.

“You might take a job—and most refugees want to be self-sufficient, especially after they’ve been in limbo for so long—over continuing English classes, or you might take a job over getting healthcare,” she explained.

One of the things that the Refugee Center tries to do is to stay up to date on what new refugee groups may be coming to the United States. Another soon-to-be-launched service is a “local research feature, where you can search within a community to find resources,” Marks added. “Refugees often aren’t aware of the many great programs that do exist within their communities.”

Though there are always ways to help refugees feel at home in their new communities, it also depends on where they resettle. More and more newcomers are choosing secondary migration to smaller towns—something Marks has researched—often for reasons of economic opportunity.

“Having enough small town amenities to have that many refugees” is important, but so are simpler things like places to buy food from their native countries, and “whether or not you can have any access to something that feels like home.”

And, as ever, empathy and human kindness are vital.

“It’s amazing: once you have a conversation or a one-on-one or some kind of community event where you have a face-to-face with another human, you just become two people living in the same community,” Marks said, adding that most refugees usually share many of the same values as their new American neighbors.

And she often returns to her role as religion major as a way to view the world. Religion is still “a lens to understand a lot of important events in world history, and a lot about how people view themselves in the world.”

As more and more refugees worldwide are seeking a path toward a new home, the perspective of people like Marks may be vital to their successful resettlement.

Find more information at The Refugee Center Online’s website.