Rebuilding Lives in Durham, One Refugee at a Time

Rebuilding Lives in Durham, One Refugee at a Time

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Photo by Briana Brough
Photo by Briana Brough

Ellen Andrews is a born-and-raised Durhamite who graduated from UNC in 2009 with a degree in psychology, minoring in biology. Always thinking she would go into research, it was only after she spent time volunteering and interning at the Carol Woods Retirement Community that Ellen realized she was best suited to an active, dynamic, interpersonal work environment. She started her work at Church World Service (CWS) – which had just opened its doors, too – straight out of college, initially as an employment specialist. After helping more than 100 refugees get jobs that first year, she took a post as a team leader, then a supervisor role overseeing program management responsibilities and moved into her current director position with the Durham Immigration & Refugee Program in 2014.


It’s normal to step into the Church World Service Durham office and hear Somali, Arabic, Dari, Kinyarwanda, Tigrinya and Karen all coming from the waiting area at the same time. Day to day, there’s a revolving door of CWS’s diverse refugee clients, who utilize the organization’s community resources including English classes, employment classes, case management services and immigration legal services. Supervising several direct service staff, Ellen says she maintains an open-door policy for questions. “Their jobs are highly unpredictable as well, and we do a lot of problem solving together,” she explains. “The variety of things that can happen is endless when you work across cultures and languages, and in partnership with a number of other community service providers.” (Look right for examples of these partners.)

Ellen stays in touch with these providers as well as funders and CWS’s headquarters in New York City as part of her everyday tasks, but it’s the distinct transformation she witnesses within the people she and her colleagues serve that makes her work worthwhile. “When refugees arrive in the country they experience a wide variety of emotions – excitement, joy, fear – but every one experiences doubt, apprehension and uncertainty, and you can see it in their faces,” she says. “It happens all the time that I see someone in our office after they’ve been here for four or six months – their head is high and their eyes are bright – and I think, ‘Wow, they look like a totally different person!’ Refugee resettlement affords the world’s most vulnerable people the opportunity to take back control over their lives and reclaim their dignity.”

In recent months, refugee resettlement has become the subject of political discord, particularly the resettlement of Syrians across the country. While that number is still very small, Ellen explains, there is suddenly a tremendous amount of focus on the issue. Still, the anticipation is that the number of Syrians being resettled nationally and locally will continue to increase. “ … In the most basic terms, we are in the midst of a global refugee crisis where there are more displaced people than any point in history since World War II,” Ellen says. “It’s become obvious that repatriating all of those displaced folks home is not a feasible solution at the moment, and the neighboring countries to which they’ve fled are completely overburdened and beyond their capacity to continue to help.

“As a nation and a community, we must step up to do our part by welcoming refugees to rebuild their lives here in America – in some ways, it’s really that simple.”

Better Together

CWS RDU works closely with the health department, department of social services and public schools across Durham, Orange and Wake counties. In Durham, they also partner with Habitat for Humanity, the Durham Bike Co-op, The Scrap Exchange and Urban Ministries of Durham to offer community service opportunities to newly arrived refugees so they can develop job skills, cultural savvy and get oriented to the community. A number of different student organizations at Duke and UNC also work with new refugees. Lincoln Community Health Center has also expanded in the last year to be able to see most of the refugees who arrive to Durham County for primary care. “These are just a few,” Ellen emphasizes.

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Amanda MacLaren
Amanda MacLaren is the executive editor of Durham Magazine. Born in Mesa, Ariz., she grew up in Charlotte and attended UNC-Chapel Hill, majoring in journalism. She’s lived in Durham for five years now. When she’s not at work, you can usually find her with a beer in hand at Fullsteam, Dain’s Place or Bull City Burger or getting takeout from Chubby’s.