On Nov. 21, 2003, Eliab Munyehirwe arrived at McCarran International Airport with only a pair of shoes, two pairs of jeans and a couple of T-shirts in his bag. With no family or friends in his new country, Munyehirwe, a refugee from Rwanda seeking asylum in the United States, was greeted at the terminal by a representative of the African Community Center, a local organization that would become instrumental in shaping his new life in America.
Munyehirwe had never ventured outside of Rwanda’s borders when political unrest in the country and threats to his family forced him to flee alone to Uganda in 2001. After spending nearly three years in a refugee camp, Munyehirwe was approved for resettlement in the United States—Las Vegas, to be exact.
“It was such a culture shock,” he says. “I thought I was prepared, but I wasn’t really. I took two weeks to learn and to get as much information as I could so I wouldn’t be surprised when I moved here, but it was just overwhelming.”
When Munyehirwe arrived in Nevada, the African Community Center—an affiliate of the national nonprofit Ethiopian Community Development Council, which assists refugees throughout the resettlement process—found him an apartment and paid his first month’s rent. The center also helped him apply for a Social Security card, paid his utility bills, gave him clothes and took him to classes for English as a Second Language. Munyehirwe learned how to speak English while in Uganda, but the ESL classes taught him about American culture and how to apply and interview for jobs. Within three months, he was working as a food runner at the Imperial Palace.
Since 2003, the ECDC African Community Center has helped hundreds of legally admitted refugees resettle in Las Vegas, often working with Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada and Nevada Partners to provide much-needed resources such as health insurance, language classes, job training and cash.
“One of the missions of the ECDC is to resettle and to help refugees, to integrate them fully in their new community and to help them find their way around in the new community, and to organize all the resources available, public and private, toward that end,” says Berihun Teferra, managing director of the African Community Center.
The center obtains funding from federal agencies such as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement, which offers a variety of assistance programs. The programs’ qualifications vary, and the center sifts through the details to find funding sources for every refugee. The U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration also provides $1,100 of direct assistance for each refugee, which the African Community Center manages on their behalf.
Prior to the recession, the African Community Center saw 80 percent of its refugee clients placed in jobs within three months of arrival, which limited the amount of monetary assistance they needed. Now it usually takes six to nine months for refugees with training and knowledge of English to find work.
“Times are tough,” Teferra says. “Nevada is leading the nation in unemployment. That makes our task more difficult, but we’re not giving up. We have to do everything possible, and we are optimistic that the public is still generous.”
Private donations help bridge the gap when federal funding runs out, Teferra says. The African Community Center also relies on its partnerships with local hotel-casinos to find jobs for new refugees.
Seven years after landing in Las Vegas, Munyehirwe is now a nursing student and homeowner. He is still connected to the African Community Center, visiting newly arrived refugees, helping them make the transition and sharing his experiences with them, letting them know he has been in their shoes, and they are not alone.