Helping Rwandan Immigrants in Ohio

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EAST LANSING, Michigan — Political turmoil and high poverty levels are often why Rwandans leave their home country. Like all immigrants, they search for better opportunities and a safer life. Over the past several decades, the number of Rwandan immigrants has steadily increased, akin to most African countries.

Why Do People Leave?

Despite recent economic improvements, 39% of Rwanda’s population lives below the poverty line. Before COVID-19, Rwanda’s economy was booming, which substantially improved living conditions and child mortality rates. However, post-pandemic projections estimate the poverty rate will rise by 5.1%, dragging more than 550,000 Rwandans into poverty.

Political turmoil historically has divided the people of Rwanda and left the country in a state of unrest. So deep were the divisions between the Hutu ethnic majority and the Tutsi that it led to the Rwandan Genocide of 1994. The Hutu people murdered 800,000 Rwandans, mostly Tutsi minorities, and over 2 million refugees fled the country. As this bloodshed spread and afflicted the entire country, ordinary people joined in and turned on their fellow Rwandans.

The number of Rwandan immigrants has since slowed, but a lack of refugee and immigrant support upon arrival in America persists. Catherine Bitwayiki, an asylum-seeker from Rwanda, came to America in 2009 and encountered firsthand the challenges of integrating into American society. Based on her own experiences and struggle upon arriving in the states, it took her 9 years and 7 months to get an official Green Card, Bitwayiki was inspired to help fellow immigrants better transition and navigate services.

What is Cross Over Community Development?

To meet these needs, Bitwayiki founded Cross Over Community Development in April 2016. Bitwayiki credits her community with making this possible: “If I didn’t have the support of the community, this nonprofit wouldn’t exist,” she told The Borgen Project in an interview.

It is based in Dayton, Ohio- the first Certified Welcoming city in America that promotes immigrant inclusion and helps immigrants and refugees access community services and resources. Though it helps immigrants and refugees worldwide, Bitwayiki says the nonprofit mainly focus on those they can communicate with. Because Bitwayiki speaks Swahili, French and Kinyarwanda, it primarily focuses on individuals who speak these languages.

“We are particularly trying to help those we can communicate with within their native language,” Bitwayiki told The Borgen Project. Communicating in a native language is crucial to helping immigrants and refugees comfortably, clearly and efficiently navigate what can be confusing American systems. This is particularly helpful when assisting immigrants and refugees from around Africa, not just Rwanda. Notably, hundreds of thousands of people from the Democratic Republic of the Congo have left because of their longstanding humanitarian crises. In 2020 alone, there were more than 940,000 Congolese refugees and asylum seekers.

What Impact Does This Organization Have?

Eventually, immigrants and refugees must learn English if they are to integrate into American society successfully. Bitwayiki highlights the importance of knowing English and how her knowing it helped immensely when coming here. Cross Over Community Development makes learning English a priority to reduce language barriers. It also provides SAT tutoring and college and career guidance.

Through these efforts, it is helping immigrants and refugees out of poverty by providing them with an opportunity that fosters success. When they succeed, they tend to send money back to family in their home country, reducing poverty there, too.

Right now, Cross Over Community Development has 13 programs helping over 100 families. These programs help in many areas, including job searching, confidence, family life, community participation and English fluency.

Why Does This Matter?

Bitwayiki firsthand understands the stress that comes with having to leave behind everything. Most immigrants and refugees come to America with few possessions and little knowledge of the English language. This makes their new life confusing enough. Cross Over Community Development tries to make this transition process easier by connecting refugees and immigrants with community services that can make all the difference in their lives and future success.

Indirectly, this program reduces poverty, as immigrants and refugees who prosper in America help their families abroad. It may not seem like a small nonprofit in Dayton, Ohio, could have such a notable and lasting impact on so many lives, but it has and does. It provides opportunities that otherwise might not be available. Having someone with personal experience in this field allows empathy in a way that otherwise might not be possible.

Catherine Bitwayiki knows the precise nature of coming to America with little. She knows about the intricacies of the refugee and immigrant system in America. Like the people this organization serves, Bitwayiki turned and helped others in this nonprofit in her success.

– Cameryn Cass
Photo: Flickr

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