Gannon Works to Help Erie's Refugees

Posted: November 9, 2012

For the thousands of refugees who came to the United States in search of a better life and are now living in Erie, reality has not always matched their hopes and aspirations.

At times, the refugees have been the victims of assault, harassment, and intimidation.

Gannon University, through the help of a visiting fellow, has sought to bring greater awareness to the refugees’ plight and to develop a community-wide approach to helping them.

The fellow, Marie Soudnie Rivette of Haiti, has spent nearly three months working with the refugees. Gannon has hosted Rivette as a fellow through the Community Solutions Program, a professional development program for the best and brightest global leaders.

Her findings recently were shared at a public forum held at Gannon University. Participants included Erie County District Attorney Jack Daneri, more than 20 local refugees, and a number of Gannon University students, faculty, and administrators.

Rivette’s work at Gannon has included meeting with more than 70 local refugees – many of them from Bhutan, Nepal, Somalia, Iraq, Burundi, and Burma – as well as staff from organizations like Catholic Charities, the International Institute, and the Multicultural Resource Center. She has conducted a comprehensive study of the refugees’ experiences, focusing primarily on the manner of violence they have been exposed to and their coping mechanisms.

Her work is an important extension of Gannon’s Erie-GAINS (Gannon Alliances to Improve Neighborhood Sustainability) program, an effort by the University to serve and support its neighbors and downtown Erie. Many refugees live within the Erie-GAINS neighborhood, which is bordered by Presque Isle Bay to the north, Parade Street to the east, Eleventh Street to the south and the Bayfront Parkway to the west.

Rivette’s goal was the development of a “community plan” with recommendations designed to improve the safety, well being, and quality of life of the refugees. Refugees typically report to being subjected to five types of violence:

· Physical assaults

· Verbal harassment

· Intimidation

· Property vandalism

· Robbery/burglary

In some cases, refugees have been reluctant to contact police because of language barriers and because they are not comfortable seeking help, for fear of retribution. “The causes of the violence need to be examined further,” Rivette said. “The challenges the refugees have encountered are substantial -- helping them in a meaningful way and creating lasting solutions will require a widespread, community-based effort.”

Rivette said there are practical steps that could at least serve as a starting point for helping the refugees. Those steps include improving the level of communication between refugees and their neighbors and reviewing with the refugees procedures they should follow in the event that they are victimized.