You are using an older browser version. Please use a supported version for the best MSN experience.

‘We’ve become like a family’: Refugee Response helps refugees settle and succeed: Cleveland Champions

The Plain Dealer  Cleveland logo The Plain Dealer Cleveland 12/5/2019 By Amanda Holpuch,

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Like many ambitious teenagers, Sabzina Muhibzada is busy getting good grades in her classes, holding leadership positions in clubs and completing internships. But it was just five years ago that the 18-year-old had only ever had home schooling.

At the time, that was her only option as conflict raged outside near the contentious border between Pakistan and Afghanistan where she lived.

Since then Muhibzada has transitioned from a young refugee waiting to travel to the U.S. to a college-bound teenager in Cleveland.

Helping her on that journey has been a not-for-profit, Refugee Response, which creates programs to address the needs of the 2,500 refugees who have settled in the city since 2008, and is one of 25 organizations the Guardian, Ideastream and The Plain Dealer are highlighting in our Cleveland Champions project.

National cuts to refugees

Nationally, President Donald Trump’s administration has cut the refugee program to admit the fewest number of people in the nearly 40-year history of the program, with a ceiling of 18,000 people announced for the coming year. Refugee officers, resettlement groups and advocates say the government has effectively stopped the program and, in October, not a single refugee was resettled in the U.S.

But, while the administration’s drastic cuts to the refugee program have caused dozens of resettlement offices to close down, because Refugee Response is not directly tied to the government’s resettlement program, it has doubled in size in the past two years.

“I think it’s a testament to work our teams do and the need for it in the community,” said Patrick Kearns, Refugee Response’s executive director.

Cleveland has historically welcomed refugees and as the federal government has shrunk the resettlement program, Mayor Frank Jackson has repeatedly affirmed the city’s support for these immigrants.

“Cleveland is a city that is open and welcoming to all people and families, no matter from how near or far they come,” Jackson said last year. “It is important, now more than ever, that we stand in solidarity with those who come to Cleveland seeking a better life in our city as refugees.”

‘Like a family’

Refugee Response’s services include in-home tutoring, work on one of the largest urban farms in the country and a program for high school students such as Muhibzada.

“We’re all about not just providing one-time aid, or a one-time donation or a gift, but seeing through on a path that is going to be transformative,” Kearns said.

The program Muhibzada is in, Teen Response, came about to address the gap in what a school system can provide to refugee students who may have been exposed to unique traumatic situations, inconsistent education and other obstacles specific to people fleeing conflict zones.

In addition to providing tutoring, career counseling and cultural education, Muhibzada says Teen Response creates a built-in social support group with people from all over the world. “We’ve become like a family,” she said.

Teen Response, intentionally, also benefits Muhibzada’s family. While her father, who supported the U.S. armed forces in Afghanistan, is fluent in English, Muhibzada is able to share what she learns in English tutoring and career counseling with the rest of her family. “I teach my sisters what this means, what I learned and you have to know this is important,” Muhibzada said.

And for her, Teen Response has helped her manage a busy schedule which in the past year has

included organizing logistics for the school’s U.S. military student training program, JROTC; being treasurer for her class; participating in the Upward Bound college preparation program; taking college-level courses at a nearby university; and interning at a retirement home.

“Even if I need help in my classes, I come here and finish it,” Muhibzada said. “When I go home, I relax and go to sleep,”

Feeling violence

Refugee flows follow international crises – while many refugees in the past decade have been from the Middle East, in recent years, there has been an increase in people arriving from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Each population has different needs, and Refugee Response is built to respond to the shifting nature of these populations.

When there was an increase in Afghani families arriving in Cleveland, Refugee Response surveyed the new arrivals and identified a gap in educational opportunities for adult women. “We saw that particular population was becoming very socially isolated, left at home with young kids and no real outlet or access to understanding the new society or new world they are in,” Kearns said.

Organization: Refugee Response

Cleveland credentials: The Refugee Response was founded in 2009 by Clevelanders Paul Neundorfer and David Wallis. In 2010, ground was broken on the Ohio City Farm. Refugee Response recruited mentors to support refugee students, established the REAP program and began to sell organically farmed fresh produce to Cleveland restaurants.

Champion credentials: According to its website, Refugee Response supports over 120 refugees each year, provides opportunities for hundreds of Clevelanders to mentor and volunteer. Refugee Response supports over 25% of its annual budget from farm sales.

How to get involved: Volunteers can become youth mentors and adult tudors. Supporters can order weekly packages of fresh produce, honey and other items from its farm for $300 to $500, or about $15 to $25 a week. Direct donations and Amazon Smile donations are accepted. For more information, go to

Read more about refugees in Cleveland:

Bhutanese refugees prosper, keep culture alive

Building a bridge between police and Bhutanese refugees

Congolese part of new tapestry of immigration to Cleveland

Refugees generate jobs and revenue in Cleveland, study finds

Syrian war refugees start new life in Cleveland

Afghan refugee family escaped Taliban, welcomed in Cleveland

Northeast Ohio Vietnamese embrace ‘second country’ for its freedom and opportunity

Ohio Center for Survivors of Torture aids 175 refugees

Read more about Cleveland City Champions:


©2019 The Plain Dealer, Cleveland

Visit The Plain Dealer, Cleveland at

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


More From The Plain Dealer

The Plain Dealer  Cleveland
The Plain Dealer Cleveland
image beaconimage beaconimage beacon