International Institute of Minnesota’s mentoring program began over a decade ago after a local Somali woman had her life threatened.  This was shortly after September 11th, and there was a growing community need to bring people together to build greater cross-cultural understanding and decrease anxiety.  The mentoring program began by uniting women of different cultures and faiths, but it soon expanded to help connect new arrival families with longer-term receiving communities members.

Today, a cohort of typically 10 mentors is trained quarterly and matched with refugees who could use a little help navigating the community and adjusting to life in Minnesota. Mentors make a three month minimum commitment and visit refugees once a week for several hours.  They help refugees with task-oriented activities, such as reading mail, completing paperwork, filling out online job applications, and dealing with housing issues.  However, they play an equally important social role, too.  This might include outings like visiting the zoo together, going sledding for the first time, cooking side-by-side, and celebrating new holidays like Halloween.

To create a sustainable source of mentors, the Institute has formed a partnership with the local college’s intercultural communications class.  Students in the class receive course credit for mentoring because of the opportunity it provides to move beyond classroom theory and into real-life skills development. The experience is as much about refugees learning and adapting as it is about the mentors building their knowledge and intercultural skills.  Student mentors report that the experience has changed their perceptions and challenged their stereotypes of refugees, especially for mentors with little prior exposure to refugee families. The opportunity to serve as a mentor is also available to the wider community through the International Institute’s website.

The program is also an opportunity to promote refugee empowerment. One group of mentors was astonished when they came to visit a family from Burma who greeted them with a powerpoint presentation of their life.  Another elderly couple found themselves isolated and lonely until their mentors helped them venture out into the community and develop the confidence to truly blossom.

Mentoring programs can be time consuming to manage, and it can be challenging to receive regular updates from mentors who may not complete paperwork in a timely manner. Having a dedicated staff person who understands how to keep mentors on track and motivated is important.  Training mentors, especially on cultural adjustment issues, is another key aspect for a successful program.

The mentoring program has helped increase knowledge and understanding of International Institute and its programming. Mentors and families have made monetary, clothing, or household donations, and many have spread the word about the agency and its programs to the broader community. Some former mentors have continued their service by requesting additional families to mentor or volunteering in the organization in other capacities. International Institute remains committed to the program because of the ongoing need for refugees to have additional support beyond their initial case management and the wide interest among the receiving community for a meaningful and unique volunteer experience.

For more information:

 

Elizabeth Ross

Preferred Communities Coordinator, Refugee Services

International Institute of Minnesota

651-647-0191

[email protected]

www.iimn.org