Refugee Center ‘an active part of this community’ — and still growing

By Chicago 5 Min Read

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Refugee Center Executive Director Lisa Wilson at the facility Monday in Champaign.

Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette

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CHAMPAIGN — Under executive director Lisa Wilson’s leadership, the Refugee Center has grown in staff, clients and funding, but Wilson’s favorite thing about the job is being a problem-solver.

She came from a background in law and though she had grown up hearing about her grandparents’ difficult immigration process, she says they had it pretty easy by comparison.

“So once I began to become more aware of the struggles that families from all over the world face when coming to the U.S., I realized that that was something I could possibly contribute my time and talent towards,” Wilson said.

That was around 2016.

By coincidence, Wilson’s husband had a discussion with a member of the center’s board who told him they were searching for a new executive director — he told them he might know someone they should talk to.

Wilson has been with the Refugee Center as it moved from offices within the Unitarian Universalist Church to multiple offices in the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District building.

The center hired more staff to keep up with an increasing client load, but the higher volume of clients also made it eligible for increased grant funding.

Meanwhile, Wilson finds herself doing a bit of everything for the organization that will be honored Saturday with the C-U Immigration Forum’s Community Impact Award.

Applying for that funding is one part, but she also gets out to community events to tell people about the center’s services and see what other groups have to offer that may help the center’s clients.

Recently, a new requirement from the U.S. Department of State has her sending out invitations to area stakeholders for a quarterly consultation for the first time.

The center must communicate about how many immigrants will move to the area, what languages they may speak and any challenges that could bring to local government and social services.

“Hopefully, that will be a collaborative meeting,” Wilson said.

She also tries to work with those community stakeholders and policymakers about changes that could benefit the immigrant community.

“I enjoy solving problems and I enjoy advocating for immigration policy,” Wilson said.

One topic on her mind at the moment is the challenge immigrants have getting employment authorization.

Wilson said that there are many job openings here in Champaign County and nationwide that immigrants should be able to fill but are not being allowed to.

“That is the biggest barrier our clients face, even more so than language barriers. Employment Authorization prevents our undocumented clients from holding adequate jobs; it makes them vulnerable to exploitation and wage theft and it makes it very difficult to get adequate housing,” Wilson said.

On the positive side for the Refugee Center, it has recently been approved by the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration to be an affiliate refugee resettlement agency rather than just a community partner.

As a community partner, the center could only receive around 85 refugees, and they must already have a tie to the local community such as family or friends who live in the area.

As an affiliate refugee resettlement agency, the center will be able to receive a higher number of refugees and that local tie will not be required.

That does mean new challenges for the immigrants and the Refugee Center, but Wilson said those same challenges affect the center’s undocumented clients who are seeking asylum, too.

“They come without any resources, any family to lean on or any friends, and really require a lot of very intensive case management services,” Wilson said. “We’re looking forward to serving those clients, hopefully with some more resources that are becoming available through state and federal grants.”

Preparations to accept this higher number of clients are part of ongoing goals for the center to grow.

Last year, it served over 2,500 individuals.

“We want to continue to remain an active part of this community,” Wilson said.

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