RPC Helps Make Champaign County a Welcoming New Home for Afghan Refugees

Representatives from local organizations that helped the Afghan refugees in Champaign County

(left to right): John Muirhead, Tawanna Nickens (Parkland College Adult Education), Anastasia Lloyd, Halim Popalzai, and Cassandra Dunham

When the U.S. military left Afghanistan after nearly 20 years in August 2021, between 60,000 to 70,000 Afghans who had worked for the U.S. as translators or had some other affiliation with the U.S. Army were also forced to leave. Thrown into a difficult and dangerous situation where their lives were in danger, and without official refugee status, they lived in military camps for several months. Some of those refugees eventually ended up in Champaign County.

Having limited or no experience speaking English, these new immigrants were faced with difficult job prospects in their new country. That’s when several local organizations, including the RPC, stepped forward to help them gain employment so they could pay their bills and establish lives in our community as they dealt with the trauma of being separated from their families.

After being settled in Champaign County, The Refugee Center in Champaign provided help to a group of refugees through things such as apartment rent for six months, clothes, food, furniture, and more. John Muirhead with The Refugee Center also reached out to the East Central Illinois workNet Center to ask about employment services for them. The RPC’s Workforce Development program enrolled the refugees in an On-the-Job Training (OJT) program at Flex-N-Gate through their Human Resources Manager, Anastasia Lloyd. The Urbana-based auto parts manufacturer is owned by Shahid Khan, himself an immigrant from Pakistan.

“The training programs were very helpful to the refugees because of their inexperience with the machinery and the language barrier,” says Halim Popalzai, a Pashto interpreter who worked with the refugees.

In addition to facilitating a training and onboarding plan while reimbursing Flex-N-Gate for the employee’s wages for roughly six months, the RPC used supportive service funding to purchase the participants bicycles that they could ride to and from work, as well as bike helmets. Flex-N-Gate provided the refugees with yellow safety vests, and Lloyd agreed to hire them for the production, painting, and plating departments and provide them with steel-toed work boots.

“This has been a great learning experience on all sides, and everyone has been flexible,” says Cassandra Dunham, a member of the Business Team in the RPC’s Workforce Development program. “That flexibility has resulted in these participants being able to learn manufacturing skills and make a livable wage that allows them to provide for their families that are still in Afghanistan.”

The RPC has enrolled 11 participants since April 2022. Currently seven of them work at Flex-N-Gate, four have obtained their driver’s license, and five were set to complete the OJT program in October 2022. Another local organization involved with helping make the transition to American life a bit easier on the Afghan refugees has been Parkland College Adult Education, which provided English as a Second Language (ESL) classes at Flex-N-Gate.

“These new Champaign County residents have a lot of hopes for the future, such as learning the English language in order to further their careers and effectively communicate with people, while bringing their families to the United States from Afghanistan,” Popalzai comments.

The RPC receives annual Federal funding to support local employers with on-the-job training projects for new employees who have barriers to retaining employment and could benefit from a training plan and support services. As part of the East Central Illinois workNet system, the RPC also looks to bring in community partners who can enhance workforce development activities.

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