Rockford Refugees Take Part in Human Library
By Sharon Boehlefeld, Features Editor
April 25, 2019
In sharing their stories with others at Rockford University, three women from three continents discovered they had something in common.
 
“We all arrived in November,” said Janet Bilijeskovic, director of the refugee resettlement program for the Rockford Diocese Catholic Charities office.
 
Bilijeskovic was part of a panel of refugees at the April 16 “RU Global?” event at Rockford University.
 
How to help refugees
 
Several people at the recent Human Library program at Rockford University asked about ways they could help the Catholic Charities Refugee Resettlement Program. Director Janet Biljeskovic had several suggestions. Volunteers can help refugees and immigrants by:
 
Tutoring in English. English as a Second Language sessions are held Tuesday and Thursday mornings.
 
Entertaining children. Parents who are learning English need someone to watch their kids while they are in ESL classes.
 
Brushing up resumes. Because the newcomers are using a language many are just learning, they could use coaching to create resumes and even to do job searches.
 
There are several other ways for men and women to help at RRS. Call or email to learn more.
 
Info: 815-399-1709 or email her at jbiljeskovic@rockforddiocese.org
Bilijeskovic, who arrived in Rockford in the mid 1990s, came from the former Yugoslavia in Europe. On the panel with her were Par Cia from Burma (now Myanmar) in Asia and Mirelle Napamba of the Congo in Africa.
 
Cia has been in Rockford for about seven years and Napamba, who arrived in November 2018, amazed people with her grasp of English. All three women took their first steps in the language through RRS’s English as a Second Language classes.
 
Bilijeskovic,  who was the first to return as a volunteer at RRS, introduduced the women to a variety of guests who took part in the Human Library program at RU.  
 
The event was presented by the RU Global Studies program and sponsored by the American Association of University Women Rockford Branch, which has selected RRS for previous programs and in-kind support.
 
A few dozen people attended the event to hear from the refugee panel, as well as three others. One was made up of Chinese students studying at RU, another of RU students from the U.S. who have studied abroad, and the third of international faculty and staff at RU. 
 
The women explained that within weeks of arriving in the U.S. each had mastered English well enough to get jobs, one of the goals of the RRS program.
 
Cia has now followed Bilijeskovic’s volunteer path and is helping in the service’s ESL program.
 
She told four rounds of guests that she had to leave Burma because as a Christian Sunday school teacher, she was wanted by the government. 
 
Napamba, who left the Congo when she was 10 years old, spent 17 years in a refugee camp in Burundi before she, her son and a few other family members finally got permission to come to the U.S.
 
Bilijeskovic explained that people who are served by RRS are all legally living in the U.S.
 
She also said they were all assigned to Rockford.
 
“When you apply, you can say your (country) preference,” she said, “but that doesn’t (always) get honored.”
 
She says the process is handled, in part, by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which performs initial vetting of refugee applicants before placing them in new countries.
 
Bilijeskovic said today’s refugees have a pre-arrival orientation. “We didn’t have that,” she said of her experience.
 
When refugees arrive in Rockford, Bilijeskovic added, they go through a series of courses to help them learn about U.S. culture and, more basically, how to get around in Rockford. The ESL classes are part of that aid.
 
Other sessions are taught by representatives of the Rockford Mass Transit District, public schools and police force. 
 
“It is a big culture shock for everybody,” she said, and the lessons help ease the newcomers through the changes.
 
Even cooking classes help people who have never used an oven or cooktop, she said.
 
“Nobody runs away from the good,” Bilijeskovic said to the last group of visitors. “Wherever you go you want to have a home.
 
“This is our home now,” Bilijeskovic said. 
 
Cia, who has been in the U.S. for a handful of years, echoed the sentiment. “We start a new life. We can breathe now. ... Now, by the grace of God, we live here.”