#017 – Today’s guest, Ann O’Brien, is the Director of Community Engagement at IRIS (Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services) in New Haven, Connecticut, since 2016. IRIS has resettled more than 1,300 refugees in the last four years and annually assists over 2,000 refugees and immigrants as they strive for family self-sufficiency. Ann talks to us about the impact IRIS has in the community and its annual Run for Refugees 5K.
- History of Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services (IRIS)
- Services offered for refugees and immigrants
- Annual Run for Refugees 5K race
Ann O’Brien has over 20 years of experience in non-profit operations and financial management, as well as grassroots organizing and fundraising. Ann has worked in hospitals, the performing arts, and with immigrant populations in Missouri, Illinois, New York, and Connecticut. She co-chaired a refugee resettlement group in Ridgefield, Connecticut that resettled a Syrian family in 2016. Ann has been the Director of Community Engagement at IRIS (Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services) in New Haven, Connecticut, since 2016. IRIS has resettled more than 1,300 refugees in the last four years and annually assists over 2,000 refugees and immigrants as they strive for family self-sufficiency.
Website – https://irisct.org/
Facebook – IRIS_
Twitter – @IRISCT
Instagram – irisct_
YouTube – IRIS
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Richard Conner 0:00
This is Episode 17. Today we’re going to speak with Ann O’Brien from Integrated Refugee and Immigrant services, also known as IRIS. And Anne is going to share an inspiring story about the work that IRIS does to support refugees who come to the United States. We’re also going to talk about Run for Refugees 5K, which is their annual race and fundraiser. Hope you enjoy. Here’s what you can look forward to on this episode of Inspire Virtual Runs Podcast.
Ann O’Brien 0:33
to really you know, recognize that although our families or that we’re working with might be fleeing really terrible situations, what they’re coming toward in the United States now is something that they see as a welcome and opportunity. And so that’s something that we can all be joyful for them. And no matter what your level of, quote unquote movement accomplishment is, whether you run before or not, whether you just want to walk it or you want to, you know skiing or snowshoeing whatever you want to do is to just recognize that it’s great to get out and move and celebrate that. That welcoming families is really what we all know how to do, and it’s our most noble American tradition
Welcome to Inspire Virtual Runs Podcast, whether you are new to running for seasoned, get tips and the inspiration that you need to achieve your health and fitness goals. Now, here’s your host, Richard Conner.
Richard Conner 1:43
Hi everyone, welcome to Inspire Virtual Runs Podcast. I’m here with today’s guest, Ann O’Brien. Ann has over 20 years of experience in nonprofit operations and financial management, as well as grassroots organizing and fundraising, and has worked in hospitals, the performing arts, and with immigrant populations in Missouri, Illinois, New York and Connecticut, and has been the director of community engagement at IRIS, Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services in New Haven, Connecticut since 2016. IRIS has resettled more than 1,300 refugees in the last four years in annually assists over 2,000 refugees, and immigrants as they strive for family self-sufficiency. Iris hosts the annual Run for Refugees 5K. And we are excited to have Ann on the show to talk about the organization and the 5K. Welcome to the show Ann.
Ann O’Brien 2:46
Thanks, Richard, this is so exciting because it is IRIS’ first virtual run for refugees, our major fundraiser, but it’s our 15th year doing this event. So we’re kind of excited to change things up no matter what was going on in the rest of the world. So thanks for having us on.
Richard Conner 3:09
Yeah, no problem that that’s awesome. And, you know, I myself reside in Connecticut, and I was really excited to learn about this amazing organization in the 5K run that’s practically in my backyard. And you know, the reason why, you know, this is exciting for our community, is because running for a cause is what inspired some of our members to start running in the first place. And my hope is to inspire others through your you know, your story and the work of IRIS.
Ann O’Brien 3:41
Oh, that is perfect, Richard, you know, we love it that there are first time quote unquote runners that were inspired to participate in this because, you know, first time anything tells you the core of our work and what we do. You know, we welcome families that have been fleeing persecution, war, tyrannical governments that have tried to eliminate entire populations. And those families come here Seeking Safety, they just want to work and let their family grow. But you know what, when you come here, and you don’t speak English, and you’ve had to sell all your belongings, to buy a plane ticket to come here, you know what, it’s a new beginning and it’s in it’s hard. And so if people are for the first time, trying to get rid of those pandemic pounds and jump into this particular 5K, then they will have one little inkling as to what our families go through, right. It’s seeing something that you want to make happen. You have no idea how to do it and making that happen. And that’s what our staff and volunteers do for these families. When they come here. We help them restart their lives. They’ve had beautiful family lives before that have been disrupted. And we want them to be able to start those lives with strength and safety, and the confidence that they can contribute to our communities as we know they can with the beautiful cultures they bring with them. So I think it’s absolutely perfect that this virtual run for refugees in its 15th year might inspire people to take on a new challenge. And you know, what’s also great is they can run, they can walk, they can dance, they can treadmill, they can Peloton, whatever works for them in their current environment, we just got a video of somebody doing a dancing for refugees down in Texas, which was super fun, they sent us a TicTok video. But for you know, first time runners, it doesn’t matter even with the snow, you can get past this snow day, and you can jog along, and it’s so gorgeous to do in the winter time. So we’re really glad that it’s been an inspiration for people because our clients inspire us every day with their resilience and the joy that they bring to the United States in wanting to restart their lives here in Connecticut.
Richard Conner 6:16
That’s really, really nice. I appreciate you sharing that with us. And, you know, I think that’s a good segue into learning more about like, how does, how does IRIS work? How does IRIS support these families that come to the US if you could tell us a little bit more about the the organization the support that they provide?
Ann O’Brien 6:34
Sure. So IRIS first began working solely with refugees that come through the federal program that invites families that you know, have fled conflict and persecution. And over the years, we’ve expanded, so we still welcome hopefully more and more families with the new administration in Washington, DC, but we still welcome refugee families coming from overseas. And we’ve expanded to help other families that have come here, either across the southern border, or asylum seeking families or individuals that may have come here on a student visa, or some type of other visa. And while they’re here, things may become unstable at home in their home country. And they have to request asylum here in the United States. And we also work with people that are immigrants that have been here for many decades, but need help finding a new job. For instance, in the pandemic, a lot of people lost their jobs. And they may not have had the professional network to find those new jobs, and we help them do that. So what we really do and focus on is helping families to achieve the self-sufficiency that they so desperately want. Right. So whether it’s a new family from overseas that needs absolutely everything. So a new home, Introduction to the school system, Introduction to the health care system help navigating those systems. You know, we provide those wraparound services for new families coming from overseas, but families that are here that maybe just need help for a short term in order to get back up on their feet. So folks during the pandemic, who may have been the first ones to lose their job, because so many immigrants are essential workers. But some of those services were significantly decreased or they work in restaurants will help them define those new jobs, or to communicate with the school system if the parents don’t don’t speak English very well, or they don’t understand the school system. So we do those things that help families become more self sufficient, stable, and get back on their feet. Because that’s what all of these folks want. They don’t want to be dependent. They want to have control of their own lives. When a family has fled violence or persecution. All they want is to be able to have schooling for their kids to be able to work and to be able to provide for their own families. And so we are all about giving them the tools that they need, or any advice or guidance or connections they need to get back onto that road to self sufficiency and stabilizing the family unit. And that’s everything that we do. Right now, during the pandemic. We have been providing a great deal of assistance in terms of our food pantry, which before the pandemic we were operating once a week and serving about 80 families. And now we’re still operating at once a week but it has quadrupled in size. So a lot of immigrant families were the first ones to lose their jobs. And so we have been providing food at a much higher rate. Our food pantry in New Haven. But we’ve also been helping with rent assistance. So if somebody was in danger of eviction because of loss of job, we have helped families with that, as well as help with utilities, again, just to get them through those hard times, so that they can get back onto a road that’s more stable. And so we basically do what folks need in the moment. But we always have a long term goal and so to the families that we work with, keeping with that we also provide higher education, counseling, tutoring in the schools. And we work with community groups around the state who want to do this same work, but in their own community. So we train groups of volunteers to receive a family from overseas and to resettle them in their town all over Connecticut. And we also train them to work with asylum seeking families that may already be here, but need additional assistance. So we’re all about helping those families because they’re our newest Americans, they’re the ones that are living how you know, our forefathers did when they first came here, and we want them to have that same experience that welcome. And that, you know, hand that gives them a little bit of help when they need it most. Because we know that folks did that for our ancestors as well.
Richard Conner 11:24
That’s, that’s wonderful. I love the mission of the IRIS organization and the work that you’re doing. And it’s a, it’s a big task, I’m thinking about your more mid to long term work, as you call the self sufficiency for the families, and as well as the short term work to help people get back on their feet. How do you how do you manage all of this? Like how, you know, how do you have resources in place to support these families?
Ann O’Brien 11:51
So that is a great question. We do apply for federal grants to help with some of this, but only about 45% of our funding comes from things like that, and grants through the state. But over 50 to 60% comes from private sources. And what that means is we have to apply for grants to private foundations. We have so many generous folks that give us donations throughout the year, and our Run for Refugees. It is our major awareness raising and fundraising event. We don’t have a gala, we don’t do an auction. But what we do is help make this 5K happen. And we have lots of incredibly generous sponsors that sponsor the run, like Griswold home care, and Yale New Haven Hospital, others like that, and WSHU helps us as well, the NPR station, but most of the fundraising that we need, in order to deliver these services to these families come from individuals, people that give $10, $25, and much larger amounts, but it’s really the people that give what they can give in order to help us get there. And this fundraiser this 5K, we’re actually hoping to bring in well over $100,000 with it. And it’s really kind of a cornerstone of both our awareness raising about the needs of refugee families and immigrant families, as well as a key fundraiser for us.
Richard Conner 13:29
That’s great to know that it’s such a big part of your fundraising efforts there and how important it kind of showcases how important the run for refugees five K is. And I think that’s great for the listeners to hear a little bit of background on the the role that this race plays within your organization. So we can talk about that for a little bit. So I know this year, it’s being held virtually, which is not how it’s been done before, but because of the pandemic is being held virtually this year, from Saturday, January 30. through Sunday, February 14, if I’ve got the dates, right.
Ann O’Brien 14:03
Richard Conner 14:03
Since it wasn’t always virtual. Can you give us a sense of kind of like how this race was, was organized and attended and the success in the past?
Ann O’Brien 14:14
Sure. So this race began 15 years ago. And I think they had little right around 300 runners the first year. And it was held at East rock Park in New Haven, right there at the base of that little mountain and there was a roadway that they would close down and run up to the top of the mountain and then double back and run back down. And it grew by about 10% each year through 2017. And so slowly, but surely, we started having a bigger event each year and in 2016, there were about 1000 runners, and we grew it to the point where we were actually having a fun afterparty there at Wilbur cross High School in New Haven and there would be Live music as well as we were crazy. And we would try to feed everybody a big international festival like after party after the run. And we started drawing people from all over Connecticut as our services helped immigrant families all over Connecticut, and even into Massachusetts and otherwise. And then when the travel ban happened in January of 2017, there were so many people that were just furious and outraged at that having happened. And they wanted to be able to show refugees and immigrants, that that type of that type of a ban against families like that, like ours, wouldn’t be accepted that they just came out in droves. So we went from 1000 person event in 2016, to a 3000 person event in 2017. We literally tripled in size. I know it was amazing, absolutely amazing. We actually had to close the race, because we were told by the folks that insure that particular route that we could not put more than 3000 people on that route safely. And then 2000 more spectators showed up and put together a march and a rally to downtown.
Yeah, it was really incredible the show of support. And so each year since 2017, we’ve grown each year about 10%. And so last year, which was the last time it was in person, we had 3300 participants and another 1500 spectators, it was just incredible. We had three live bands at the after party. And it’s just you know, it’s everybody from Elite runners to families pushing strollers with kids in costumes. It’s just such an incredible celebration of welcoming immigrant families to the United States, it was really just just a beautiful, beautiful event. So this year with the pandemic, although we, you know, really hated the idea of not being able to bring everybody together, we put our heads together, we put together a team of volunteers as well as staff members, and in the fall, and we said, well, how can we make it better than before? How can we, you know, take this, the reality of it being virtual, that we can’t bring all these people together in one place, and make that even better. And so we decided to really pitch it to folks to run wherever they were around the world around the country. And we also decided to try to connect folks digitally. So we had some of our refugee youth who loves music, curate some Spotify lists that were inspired by music from their home countries. And we have those Spotify lists for music from Iraq and Iran and Sudan and Mexico, that we’re providing to people when they register for the run, so that they’ll have this sense of, you know, international community, and connectedness to the youth that we serve in our families. But we also started asking people as they were registering for the run, to send us videos and photos, showing us what the weather is like where they’re running. And it has been so much fun. Richard, people have sent us pictures. If folks go to our Facebook page, people send us pictures from Glacier National Park in Montana, somebody else sent us a picture from the top of a ski mountain where they’re shouting run for refugees as they’re getting ready to ski down the mountain. And other folks in Australia, Zurich, in Switzerland, in Canada, they’ve all registered and are showing their support for welcoming refugees, no matter where they are, right. And so it’s really created this great sense of, you know, kind of fun and liberation, if you want to say instead of spending the afternoon to come and try to get to New Haven on time on a Sunday morning, they’re getting creative with their photos, and then they’re going to join us for an online celebration on Sunday morning, next this coming Sunday.
Richard Conner 19:17
That’s awesome. That’s awesome. And, and my understanding is you had somewhat of an international presence, even prior to the pandemic, but it kind of seems like or feels like going virtual has really enabled more people for more countries to participate. Is that right?
Ann O’Brien 19:33
That is right. So IRIS has been an early adopter of a program that’s called Community sponsorship. So the idea of community sponsorship is really, you know, a group of people from a faith community coming together and saying, you know, we want to welcome a refugee family, our church or synagogue or mosque, we’ll do it as a group. And that’s how refugee resettle started out in the US 30 years ago. But the Oregon the organizations that have you know, made refugee resettlement happen over the past 30 years, had moved a little bit away from that at that model. And about four years ago, IRIS kind of took that model, and really added some key parts to it, in order to enable more and more communities to do that resettlement work and to welcome families, even if they were an hour or more away from our offices. And we call it community sponsorship. And low and behold, there was an organization a few years ago called the global refugee sponsorship initiative that was doing the same thing. They were, they were trying to get countries around the world, this group global refugee sponsorship initiative, and open societies Foundation, to really kind of re embrace the welcoming of refugees into every town and every village and every city, around the world under the oversight and guidance of professionals. And so once we hooked up with them, and we got to go on some, our executive director got to go on some speaking engagements in Geneva and in London and to, to work with them, we decided to tap into that. And sure enough, we got folks from the United Kingdom, from Winnipeg from Australia, who said, that’s a great idea, let’s all run for refugees. So we sent them links, and they registered. And again, it’s just another way to recognize that this idea of welcoming families who are fleeing persecution, it’s all of us. This is not something that is specific to one country or another, it has happened to all of our countries. And for, we hope it won’t, but it could happen again in the future. And we want everybody to realize that this experience is something that we could all go through. And there’s joy to be had in welcoming those families, to safety wherever you live, and it strengthens our communities, it brings people together. So it’s been kind of fun to engage our community sponsorship partners around the world to celebrate this run with us.
Richard Conner 22:25
That’s really exciting. I just, I just love this topic. And I love the work that you guys are doing. And, you know, to kind of to kind of connect some of the some of the topics we’re talking about here in our community, you know, as far as virtual runs is about inspiring people to run and whatever their motivation is to run. And like I said, one of the motivation could be for a great cause, like like this one. So I love that we’re having this conversation. And then the other piece of it is the virtual aspect of running, which is been around for a while, but obviously more so in the last year given the current situation. So it’s great that you we take in the situation where we can’t come together. And we’re able to not only overcome it, but also expand it and bring in communities from from around the world. I think that’s I think that’s phenomenal. And that’s just great work with your team and organization there.
Ann O’Brien 23:17
Thanks, Richard. We also decided that we wanted to make it have multiple opportunities for people to come together how they can. So we came up with some unique prizes for teams that become the top fundraisers. So for example, we partnered with sanctuary kitchen, which is located here in New Haven, as well as one of our own clients who has their own catering and restaurant business, Greenleaf in Clinton, Connecticut. And then another refugee focused, cooking and restaurant and catering business in New York City called Emma’s torch. And we asked them if they would provide to our top three fundraising teams, a, an individual cooking class with their refugee chefs. And so whether a fundraising team is one of the top three because they have 10 members or 40 members, they’re going to win the chance to have a refugee cooking class, online on zoom with their group. So it will just be another way to come together and to do it in a joyful way around refugee resettlement.
Richard Conner 24:29
Hmm, that’s that’s exciting. That’s, that’s awesome. I love how you’re trying to make this fun and engaging for the participants. It’s, you know, that’s something that we kind of think about when we’re doing virtual races. If you compare it to the live races, you may not have that same excitement and energy as in a live race because like you said, you have the the race, you have the spectators, you have the after party. This is a really nice way of really kind of bringing that same energy and excitement and interest to to the virtual race. That’s that’s pretty
Ann O’Brien 25:01
Yeah, we’re excited about it, when you remove the barrier of everybody having to physically get to one location, and then have other people who would have loved to participate, but they don’t live in New Haven anymore. Or, for example, there’s a woman who discovered our race online and her friend is in Rhode Island, but she lives in Arizona now. So they decided they were going to put their headphones on and run together, even though they’re in totally different time zones. And then they were going to get together for the online celebration at the same time. So just you know, once you remove those barriers of people that are either for far away and you know, want to be able to participate, or they’re local, and they, you know, are not sure about being able to get together as a group, then, you know, the sky’s the limit, per se, right.
Richard Conner 25:53
That’s great. That’s great. So this is this is awesome, I appreciate you sharing, you know, some background on on IRIS, and the work that you’re doing with run for refugees, five cane and the role that it plays in terms of fundraising, as well as the the virtual element. So you know, kind of as we wrap up here is there like one thing or one message that you’d want to share what you know, with our community,
Ann O’Brien 26:18
I think the main message is to share your joy, and to let yourself be uplifted by the others participating in the run for refugees. And to really, you know, recognize that, although our families or that we’re working with might be fleeing really terrible situations, what they’re coming toward in the United States now is something that they see is a welcome and opportunity. And so that’s something that we can all be joyful for them. And no matter what your level of, quote unquote movement accomplishment is, whether you run before or not, whether you just want to walk it or you want to, you know, ski it or snowshoeing whatever you want to do, is to just recognize that it’s great to get out and move and celebrate that, that welcoming families is really what we all know how to do. And it’s our most noble American tradition. So however you want to do that, and uplift, it is great. And we welcome anybody joining our efforts, whether it’s for the run for refugees, or volunteering with us later in the year, we have lots of chances to do that, even via zoom and otherwise. So we just want everybody to share in the joy that we have with the work that we do.
Richard Conner 27:42
Thank you so much. And I really enjoyed this conversation. I’m so happy that I discovered IRIS and the run for refugees five K. So how can the Inspire virtual ones community learn more about IRIS, as well as sign up for for the race?
Ann O’Brien 27:59
Absolutely. So you can go to our website. And that’s it, IRIS, irisct.org. And you can also go to our Facebook page, which is IRIS, irisct underscore, and we’re also on Twitter. We’re also on Instagram, and LinkedIn. And all of those pages right now have a big run for refugees banner on them. And you can also type those words in to your internet browser. And if you go to runforrefugees.org, all run together, that will also take you to register for the run. So really, that’s the easiest way to do is just type in those words, either IRIS, Iris, integrated Refugee and Immigrant services or run for refugees. org, and all of those roads will lead you to the run.
Richard Conner 28:51
That’s awesome. Thank you so much. I’m signed up for the race. I can’t wait to do this. I’m going to wait for some of the snow to pass. But it’s in my plan to do this before the 14th I can forward to it. I really encourage our community to to check out the website or the other social media platforms and learn more about the Run for Refugees um 5K, and sign up and run and support this awesome organization.
Ann O’Brien 29:15
Thanks, Richard. Thanks for inviting us looking forward to seeing everybody online.
Richard Conner 29:22
Sounds good. All right. Well, have a great day.
Ann O’Brien 29:25
Richard Conner 29:28
All right. So just want to take a moment to again, thank Ann for taking the time out to come on the show and share her story and the great work that IRIS is doing to support refugees in the United States. Just an awesome story and great work that that the team is doing. So I want to share just three things that I took away from the conversation. Number one, running to support a cause is really a great way to either start running or stay motivated and it’s really a double win. You’re doing good for others, and you’re doing good for yourself. Ann talked about how they turned a problem of not having a live race into an opportunity. They were bummed that they weren’t able to have that live race. But they’re hosting their run for refugees 5K, in a way not only to engage with local participants, but expand the engagement worldwide. And you know, virtual doesn’t mean that you’re running it alone. There are 1000s of other runners out there participating in these events. And Iris has made virtual fun with social media, prizes for fundraisers, and so much more. So I would encourage you to go to irisct.org to check them out. and sign up for the run for refugees five k race. I’ll include the links in the show notes for you. I’ve signed up, and I’m looking forward to seeing posts and photos from your run. Alright, that’s all for now. Thanks for listening, and have a great day.
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Transcribed by https://otter.ai