Welcoming and supporting refugees is on people’s minds these days—and in our conversations. Refugees share our neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces in central Iowa. They enrich our community economically and culturally. In return, you can help them feel welcome here.

Richey Thongvanh, post-settlement case manager and volunteer coordinator at Catholic Charities in Des Moines—which helps hundreds of refugees rebuild their lives in central Iowa each year—shares how anyone can make refugees feel welcome and live successfully in our community.

Thongvanh's insight is professional and personal, as he is a child of refugee parents from North Vietnam who came to Iowa with the first wave of refugees in the 1970s.

Here are Thongvanh's tips:

  1. Be helpful and kind. When you see a refugee—or anyone, for that matter—struggling with the language or technology while you’re out in public, greet them kindly and offer assistance. Someone patiently demonstrating a process or talking to staff on their behalf is not only helpful, but also heartwarming for people who can sometimes feel unwelcome in public places.

  2. Volunteer your time.
    Catholic Charities, as well as other agencies such as USCRI, Lutheran Services in Iowa (LSI), and EMBARC, is always looking for volunteers to donate their time and expertise to help refugees succeed. Here are a few options to consider:
  3. Donate items.
    Catholic Charities accepts new or gently used furniture and housewares, especially kitchen goods (no electronic items, please). School supplies, backpacks, and winter clothing is also appreciated. Catholic Charities also has an Amazon Wish List you can purchase from. Other nonprofits, such as the ones listed above, have material needs, as well.

  4. Visit a refugee-owned business.
    Thongvanh says that many refugees—both those who arrived recently and those who have lived here for decades—have opened businesses, providing a boost to economically-depressed areas in central Iowa. Venture outside your comfort zone to try a new restaurant, grocery store, or retail location where you can discover new favorite things. Or visit LSI’s Global Greens farmers market on Saturdays, where refugees sell produce they have grown.

  5. Educate yourself and others.
    Refugees in central Iowa are from many countries, including Eritrea, Ethiopia, Myanmar, and Nepal. Some have lived in refugee camps for decades before coming to the U.S. Their stories are inspiring, and you can learn a lot from their journeys. Interact with refugees by volunteering, or when you meet them in public. Follow the news about refugee issues, and learn the facts. Most importantly, when you have a positive experience or learn something new, share it with your friends and families so that they, too, can come to appreciate the diversity and prosperity that refugees bring to central Iowa.


United Way of Central Iowa is co-hosting the 2017 Refugee Summit on October 6-7 to celebrate the accomplishments of refugees in central Iowa and raise awareness about the ways they enrich our community and how we can support our new neighbors.

View the Full Schedule and Program


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Dr. Helene Fein

About The Author: Dr. Helene Fein

Dr. Helene Fein is the former director of community impact services for United Way of Central Iowa.