“There’s one mom who is on my mind a lot of the time,” says Ellie Adelman ’12 M.A., founder of The Village Institute, a Denver start-up that assists refugees who are single moms.
“She’s here on her own, and had not learned any English prior to coming to the U.S., because refugees don’t choose where they go — they are sent there. She came here trying to protect her little girl and make a life for her.”
This mother, Atifa*, left Eritrea, a country in East Africa that has since been added to the U.S. visa ban list, fleeing decades of war and tensions with the country’s neighbor, Ethiopia. While in a refugee camp, Atifa injured her leg and now she has to use crutches indefinitely, with amputation presented as her only alternative. Once she arrived in the U.S., the language barrier made it difficult to get a job, communicate with government organizations to maintain her public benefits, and even order the accessible local public transit services.
“She faced so many barriers — she ended up in a homeless shelter at one point, because she couldn’t find or keep a job that would allow her to work with her disability and limited English skills,” Adelman says. “But eventually, she got to a point where she was going to English classes and learning to read alongside her daughter, who was in school. She found herself a job as a hairdresser — something she already knew how to do — with another African woman who owns her own business. And she’s working on getting her driver’s license. With less than nothing, she did it, and that’s why we want to provide a little extra scaffolding so that these women who are so resourceful, so tough, and so driven can really reach their potential.”
And therein lies the main idea behind The Village Institute: provide social support services, housing options, mental health resources, and job training for refugee women so that they can find meaningful work that utilizes their existing skills and talents. The organization will officially launch in March 2020 with the opening of a building in nearby Aurora, Colorado, which is home to much of Colorado’s immigrant and refugee population. The building will serve as both the home of The Village Institute’s childcare center and also offer on-site housing for refugee women.
Starting with childcare was a natural choice, Adelman says. The women she is working with often have teaching or childcare experience from their home countries, so they can both staff the center and take advantage of its services for their own children. The Village Institute is also planning to offer language classes, where the women will teach their native languages of Arabic, French, or Swahili to interested learners in the Denver community.
Adelman thinks Denver is a great home for her organization because of its support of entrepreneurs.
“Colorado focuses a lot on providing entrepreneurship development resources. Denver is home to a dedicated and tight-knit community of refugee and immigrant services organizations, including the African Community Center,,” says Adelman, who worked at the center for a year. That’s where she met Atifa, and many of the other refugee women who are now working with her and other community partners to develop the programming and vision for The Village Institute. “Everything is based on direct conversations and direct input from the women in the refugee community right from the get-go.”
During her master’s program in international peace studies the Kroc Institute, Adelman did research in Uganda and says that was when she first felt drawn to explore more holistic solutions for community healing and empowerment.
“Doing my master’s thesis work and research in northern Uganda played a huge role for me in understanding the immense need for mental health services that are culturally responsive, culturally relevant, and can meet the needs of an entire community, rather than the one-on-one way that we tend to do a lot of things in the U.S.,” Adelman says. “My cohort at Notre Dame was also very diverse, so I learned so much about the value of a multicultural community working together towards the goal of building something good in the world.”
The Village Institute is an entrepreneurial effort, and Adelman wants to encourage that same spirit in the women her organization helps. The vision is that, eventually, the childcare center, language classes, and other programs will financially sustain The Village Institute and help them provide more advanced leadership and job training for refugee women to start their own businesses.
“We’ll be able to build trust, support, and connection across cultures through things like language classes, dance classes, cooking classes, and the multicultural child care center,” she says. “All of our work is focused not only on helping the women in our program develop a business or career out of something they already know and love, but it is also focused on building a bridge with their neighbors. That is very needed right now in the world, and in the U.S. in particular. Home — in many senses of the word — is really at the heart of what we’re trying to do here.”