How you can help support refugees and immigrants in Colorado

Al Milligan, Special to CPR News
Youth practice at a recent Soccer Without Borders event in Greeley.

Since the fall of 2019, Colorado has welcomed more than 900 refugees and special immigrant visa holders.

And while all are supported by state and local governments and local sponsors, the path to full cultural immersion can also be aided by friendly faces from the public.

In addition to Ukrainian refugees that Gov. Jared Polis has championed since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Colorado has also welcomed hundreds from Afghanistan. The next-highest numbers came from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burma and Syria, according to data from the Colorado Department of Human Services.

Making friends, finding work and a sense of belonging, and getting emotional support amidst language barriers and an initial sense of confusion are often challenges for people arriving from other countries where there’s conflict and insecurity.

Here are a few of the ways Coloradans are making things easier.

Kick off with Soccer Without Borders

Soccer Without Borders is an organization that receives state and private funding to offer school-aged refugees, immigrants and asylum seekers in Greeley and Aurora the chance to play soccer with other newcomers.

The program started in Aurora in 2019 and in Greeley in 2011 and has worked with hundreds of students speaking 60 different languages, relying on the universal outdoor appeal of a sport known worldwide, where kicking, running and goal-scoring becomes a bonding language around athleticism and team-building.

Casey Thomas, Colorado Director of Soccer Without Borders said, “we use soccer as a way to build a welcoming community among newcomer youth — immigrants, refugees and asylees. These are the youth that feel most marginalized, and we really work to combat that marginalization. We teach life skills, leadership and socio-emotional skills using soccer, creating an enviroment where all voices are valued, helping to build positive engagement and social support.”

Students are coached and games are played in English, which allows students to practice and gain confidence speaking a foreign language. It’s also a way for students from the same countries to find and support each other.

“When a young person arrives from Congo, for example, we might pair them with another student from Congo who can help translate,” Thomas said. 

Participants have formed six different teams in Aurora who play against each other and with other teams formed through local school districts and recreation and parks departments.

Weekly game days will occur on early release days on Wednesdays, starting in September, Thomas said, adding that first-generation children of immigrants, who speak a language other than English at home, can also participate.

Volunteer with The African Community Center

Not only young people, but adults as well, often need support and community. To help them with that, The African Community Center is seeking about 50 volunteers to support refugees coming to Colorado by being First Friend Volunteers. They will meet three times a month with refugees either in person or virtually, and help them with things like setting up a bank account, getting a library card, and getting situated in their new homes.

Volunteers can meet their new friends either in person at public places, or virtually. The first step in volunteer training will be virtual on Tuesday, Aug., 9 at 5:30 p.m., with a second one later in the month. To sign up, go here.

Ruthann Kallenberg, the Center’s Community Engagement Coordinator, said no special skills are necessary. All anyone really needs, she said, is “just having a heart for reaching out to others, and getting to know people from around the world … you don’t need a Master’s degree or a Bachelor’s degree to participate.”

A few other activities are happening this week that benefit refugees in Evans and Boulder.

On Thursday, Aug. 4, the Immigrant and Refugee Center of Northern Colorado in Evans is holding its second annual Food Truck Festival at 4:30 p.m. at the Center. Food trucks will bring Greek, German, Mexican and American Soul food, among other cuisines. Online tickets are $10.

And on Saturday, Aug. 6, Colorado Refugee Connect in Boulder will match volunteers and volunteer lawyers with recently arrived Ukrainian nationals, to help them apply for temporary protective status and to complete work applications, from 9 a.m. until 4 p.m.