When Lailey Hashem moved to Colorado with her family from Jellalabad, Afghanistan in 1982, they were one of only a few Afghan families in the whole state of Colorado. Her father who only spoke a bit of English and had been a Ministry of Education official in their home country was forced to flee because the incoming Russian-controlled government had targeted him. She began her life as an American in seventh grade at Kepner Middle School, and the family made their way in Colorado over the years without support or resources other than their own commitment to making a living in their adopted country.
Lailey is a navigator for refugee families with Hope Communities, a Denver-based nonprofit providing low-income housing and wraparound services to clients in their buildings and in their East Colfax and Five Points neighborhoods. Almost half the Hope clientele are refugees – from Africa, Asia, and Central America – and the critical link with their clients are the navigators (with fluency in more than a dozen languages) who connect them with everything from housing to ESL training, applying for work to childcare, and many more services and resources. The language skills and cultural competency that the navigators provide are critical to providing a support system for these new Americans – a support system that wasn’t there when Lailey’s family arrived forty years ago.
The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan has led to an enormous number of Afghan citizens desperate to leave the country. Many who assisted the U.S. there are particularly vulnerable to repression by the new regime. For those that arrive in Colorado, Lailey, and Hope Communities, will be there to help.
Hope’s approach to serving these newcomers is community-driven and place-based: through the navigators’ one-on-one meetings with clients and through focus groups and surveys, the staff learns about emerging needs and problems among their clientele and can address them through navigation and programming. This holistic and client-centered approach is unique in the affordable housing industry, which is why Hope was presented with the Eagle Award for superlative programs by Housing Colorado this year.
Lailey speaks both Dari and Pashto, has rare language skills in this region, and has the necessary cultural competency to reach her clients and make them comfortable. She holds a position of great influence and respect, as the Vice President of the Northglenn Islamic Center. She described how she gets some of the older Afghan women into English classes, “Often the husbands don’t see the point of women learning the language here”, she told me. “They think that women don’t need to leave the house. So I often have to convince the husbands first, that the women will be better able to help the kids in school if they learn English. Then I have to teach the women Zoom and show them how to sign up. But if the mother learns English, she can support the whole family.”
That one-to-one approach is key to Hope’s building of trust with their clientele and has never been more important than during the pandemic, when many lost jobs, got sick and suffered from isolation and fear for the future. Navigators continued their work over Zoom, over the phone, and through in-person meetings in the staff offices or in tents in the gardens of the apartment buildings, where they could meet safely. Hope answered the demand for basic needs during this time by providing food, rent money, access to healthcare, unemployment benefits and so much more. Many of the Hope clients lacked technical skills to work online; navigators trained them and produced short training videos in multiple languages on topics that might seem elemental to us but were new to them, such as how to open a Gmail account, access unemployment, and take classes and training over Zoom. Flexible and creative, Lailey and her colleagues have pivoted during the pandemic to meet the needs of their clients.
Knowing that many Hope families were facing food insecurity, Hope found the means to provide fresh food to families on a weekly and biweekly schedule. They provided over 26,500 meals since the start of the pandemic. They collaborated on a vaccination education campaign and mobile clinics throughout the East Colfax and NE Park Hill neighborhoods. When it wasn’t safe to meet indoors, they created Tent Topics to provide information and services, but also to bring the community together.
Community is the driving force at Hope. New Americans meet others from their country who speak their language, but they also meet and live together with more established Americans, neighbors who share the services and resources. This creates a sense of belonging and shared experience vital to integration.
Lailey and Hope Communities are building their capacity to meet the rising needs. We invite you to learn more about Hope Communities and their work at hopecommunities.org.