One More Obstacle

Centro Hispano for Kids

One More Obstacle

For immigrants and refugees in Knoxville, and the agencies that serve them, the coronavirus pandemic is another hurdle among many.

by jesse fox mayshark • May 12, 2020


a student partcipates in an esl class offered through a partnership between centro hispano and UT.

For the past two months, Claudia Caballero has been wrestling with a series of challenges that stem from the same basic question: How to provide services during a pandemic to a population with limited resources, language barriers and a suspicion of authorities at all levels.

Changes in federal law have made some immigrants afraid to seek services.

“We have people who have gone through so much already, COVID is just another thing on that list,” said Caballero, executive director of Centro Hispano de East Tennessee, which provides educational and cultural services for the Latino community.

For Knoxville’s immigrant and refugee communities, the global disruptions caused by the novel coronavirus arrive on top of lives already marked by separation and dislocation. The shutdowns forced by government response to the outbreak has cost them jobs, thrown their children out of school and delayed or further complicated the already complex legal processes many of them are navigating.

“Some clients lost their jobs, and some even if they have savings don’t feel like spending hundreds or thousands of dollars on immigration fees right now,” said Alessandra Ceccarelli, program leader for the Office of Immigrant Services at Catholic Charities of East Tennessee.

They have also been hit by the virus itself and by COVID-19, the illness it causes. As of Monday, the Knox County Health Department identified 58 confirmed COVID-19 patients in the county as Hispanic — about 20 percent of the total case count of 295, though Hispanics make up only 4.4 percent of the county’s population. The Health Department has attributed those cases to four large family clusters.

But those who provide services to the communities say they are for the most part bearing up under the uncertainty and potential dangers. It’s something they are in some ways used to.

“They’ve experienced very tough things,” said Drocella Mugorewera, executive director of Bridge Refugee Services, which provides services to refugees during the first five years of their resettlement in East Tennessee. Mugorewera, who was herself a refugee from Rwanda, added, “I was locked in for eight months, but I did survive that.”

Moving Online

All of the service providers said they knew just shutting down their operations wasn’t an option. During a time of so much economic and emotional stress, the people they serve were going to need them more than ever.

“There wasn’t even a moment of, ‘Do we close down and not serve,’” Caballero said. “It was just, ‘OK, let’s move everything online and keep serving.’”

Of course, as businesses and institutions across the country have learned in recent weeks, that’s a lot easier to say than do. Centro Hispano provides almost all of its regular services in person, from English-language classes to children’s programming to financial education for business owners.

Compounding the challenge of moving delivery online was the limited resources of many of the families Centro serves. Home access to either computers or the internet is variable. 

Still, Centro’s Workforce Development program was able to launch online English classes for adults and drew participation from 146 students. Caballero said it’s important to continue to reach out to people who might be feeling isolated.

“It’s keeping people connected to the world, keeping people connected to their community, it helps just with mental health I think,” she said.

She and her staff have been providing regular Facebook videos in Spanish and in with updates on the pandemic, health and safety guidelines and community resources. Centro has also joined with Allies of Knoxville’s Immigrant Neighbors (AKIN) and other local groups to solicit donations for an emergency relief fund to help undocumented or marginally documented families with rent, groceries and medical expenses.

Mugorewera said her staff at Bridge is likewise keeping in touch with their clients, especially recently arrived refugees who were just getting settled when the pandemic hit.

“We are in the social work business,” Mugorewera said. “We have to adapt our delivery of services, like case management.”

Her staff is reaching out to their clients through any means that works: phone calls, email, WhatsApp. That includes following up with families who were provided home gardening kits earlier in the year, to see how their backyard growing is going.

“We did produce fliers in different languages to make sure people understand the pandemic and how to protect themselves,” Mugorewera said.

The biggest impact she sees for her clients is that the track to employment and being able to support themselves that Bridge tries to provide will be more drawn out in the near term.

“People will of course delay becoming self-sufficient,” she said. “Even if they have documents, they won’t be able to apply for a job so easily.”

Mugorewera is also a member of the Refugee Congress, a national nonprofit group. During the pandemic, she said the group has been sharing ideas about how to maintain services and continue their advocacy.

One discussion is how to mark World Refugee Day on June 20, usually the biggest event Bridge puts on each year. 

“Normally we have food, music, dance and children’s activities,” Mugorewera said. “We’re looking at how to do it virtually.”

Fear of a ‘Charge’

At Catholic Charities, which helps immigrants with applications for citizenship, legal status and bringing family members to the U.S., Ceccarelli said one group particularly affected were those seeking to renew their Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) status. DACA allows people who were brought to the United States without documentation as children to remain here legally. 

The potential hang-up was required “biometrics” — applicants are supposed to appear in person to provide fingerprints. But with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services offices temporarily closed, the federal government agreed to accept the previous set of biometrics without requiring people to appear in person. 

“That was a big relief for a lot of our clients,” Ceccarelli said. 

Her office too has moved most of its operations online, which has meant consulting with clients via Webex video conferences. “We’ve set up a system so we can see our clients and continue providing services,” she said.

Ceccaralli said one concern she’s hearing from local immigrants is fear of incurring a “public charge” by seeking assistance during the pandemic. Under a rule enacted last year by the Trump administration, immigrants who use public benefits like food stamps or Medicaid won’t be eligible for future visas or green cards to work legally in the U.S. 

“They don’t feel comfortable applying for unemployment even if they are able to,” Ceccarelli said.

She said that carries over to fear of seeking medical care, even though the federal government has promised that COVID-related care will not count as a “public charge.”

One focus for both Centro Hispano and Bridge during the pandemic has been making sure their communities participate in the 2020 Census. With so many government services pegged to Census numbers, the agencies said it is crucial for people to be counted.

Centro produced videos educating people about the Census, and Caballero was part of the local Complete Count Committee charged with promoting participation. 

“My job is to be that squeaky wheel — ‘Do we have anything in Spanish?’” she said.

School’s In

Both Caballero and Mugorewera praised the support they’ve received during the pandemic from local foundations, government officials, major donors and others. Centro and Bridge also both qualified for Paycheck Protection Program forgivable loans under the federal CARES Act, which enabled them to keep their staffs paid and working.

One of Centro’s most novel partnerships has been with the University of Tennessee’s College of Education, which produced a program called Centro Kids Online. Since late March, it has provided twice-weekly English as a Second Language (ESL) classes to about 40 children in grades K-8.

When UT closed its campus in mid-March, Nils Jaekel, a clinical assistant professor of education, wondered what he could do for his graduate ESL students, who had been almost at the end of their year of teacher training. He was also concerned about how much ground Knox County’s ESL students would lose if they had no more instruction until August. 

“I’m German,” Jaekel said. “I speak German with my kids at home. So I know that’s going to be the same or similar situation for a lot of immigrant families as well.”

He got in touch with Centro, which signed up students and provided loaner Chromebooks to families who didn’t have computers at home. Jaekel was unsure about the prospect of delivering online instruction to young children whom none of his student teachers knew. But it has been a success.

Jaekel recounted one class where the teachers sent the students on scavenger hunts in their own homes to look for two kinds of items: things they needed, and things they wanted.

“They said, ‘We don’t know if they’ll even come back to the screen,’” Jaekel said. “So they gave them two minutes — and a lot of the kids were back in 45 seconds with an armful of things.”

Caballero was enthusiastic about the program and the kids’ reaction to it. “It is the cutest thing ever,” she said. 

Jaekel said his students learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t in online ESL instruction, which will probably be valuable knowledge in the future. They were also happy to be able to provide at least some services to out-of-school children.

“It’s so important to collaborate in our community to make things happen,” Jaekel said.

CORRECTION: This article has been corrected to identify Drocella Mugorewera as a native of Rwanda, not Liberia.