Hyde Park Refugee Project continues supporting refugee families during pandemic


Amon Gray

The Hyde Park Refugee Project continues to support refugee families amidst the pandemic.

Lucia Kouri, City Life Editor

In July 2020, a single mother and eight children from the Congo began to settle into a small Hyde Park apartment. Contributing to the millions of people displaced from the Congo due to ongoing violence and high poverty rates, this family came to Hyde Park in search of a better life — one with more job opportunities, higher education and a place for the children to grow up safely. 

Yet, as proves true with many refugees in the United States, the task of obtaining these benefits is much easier said than done. The eldest son, the only member with English proficiency, works from 10 p.m to 6 a.m. at a factory, two bus rides and a train away from his apartment. Hoping to secure a part-time job, the mother receives English tutoring while looking after her kids. 

The four sons old enough to attend school initially tackle remote learning in an apartment lacking secure internet connection. On top of that, these students have no English experience. 

After a difficult adjustment to Hyde Park, the children of this family are now receiving aid from the Hyde Park Refugee Project, an organization that is still finding ways to help families despite challenges imposed by the pandemic and without their usual mass of volunteers. 

The HPRP is an organization dedicated to providing refugees with the necessary tools to transition to life in the United States. They help families find and secure homes, raise funds for basic needs and connect with employers, while also offering English tutoring. 

In previous years, HPRP relied on the help of volunteers to facilitate this process. However, according to Lisa Jenschke, HPRP co-director, the pandemic forced the organization to suspend its in-person programs and stop relying heavily on large groups of volunteers. 

HPRP might not have been able to help the family from the Congo if not for one volunteer, Susan Boone, who was willing to aid the children of the family in person. 

Because HPRP is dedicated to protecting the identities of all associated refugee families, volunteers like Susan Boone are the only sources permitted to speak on the record about the experiences of these families. 

According to Ms. Boone, helping the family amid a pandemic introduced a whole new set of challenges, particularly with distance learning. 

“It’s hard enough, but then with that extra work around with COVID,” Ms. Boone said. “Teachers kept emailing me saying that one hadn’t logged on, so I started thinking we’ve got to get them out of there and into someplace where we can help them study.”

Ms. Boone was eventually able to make an agreement with the pastor of a church where the four elementary school students could attend online school. 

“It’s a big old house and it has this big, high ceiling room that they use as the sanctuary,” Ms. Boone said. “There are tables in each of the four corners for each of the four elementary school boys.”

According to U-High junior Ben Sachs, a student with experience tutoring for HPRP, English learners need a consistent school space like this in order to bridge their home and academic lives. 

“My sister works in immigration law and refugee resettlement,” Ben said, “so I am familiar with the experience of many immigrants and refugees and how important it is that they are able to thrive in school and life despite the language barrier.”

HPRP also paid a member of the church congregation to tutor the children on a daily basis. Ms. Boone said securing a tutor for English-learners is one of the most important steps in aiding families. 

U-High junior Anthea Dill, another previous tutor for the HPRP who has kept up with the organization’s work, believes tutors can help the kids not only in learning, but also through the environment that they help facilitate.

 “I think having a stable and consistent space for these kids is so important,” Anthea said. “You get to develop relationships with the kids and I wanted to create a safe and comfortable environment for them.”

While Ms. Boone has also helped the family furnish their household and connect to a food bank, a big portion of her time has gone toward aiding the children, not just by giving them a space to learn, but by allowing them to enjoy normal childhood activities. 

“There’s a little playground behind the church, so we’ve taken them out to play ball,” Ms. Boone said. “We get them running around a little bit and laughing because they don’t know any kids in Hyde Park.”

Ms. Boone said aiding in just this one portion of the family’s life has made a big difference on its own, even if it didn’t involve an entire army of volunteers like in previous years. 

“Once COVID is not a worry, I intend to enlist an army of volunteers to help them with English and study and play and go places,” Ms. Boone said. “But for now, it’s just been a lifesaver.”