Helping Local Refugee Mothers to Feel at Home

The Rockford Woman’s Club has started working with refugee mothers of children in the Rockford Public Schools. Find out how the club is helping these refugees and learn how you can get involved.


After almost two years of research and conversations with community leaders and professionals, the Rockford Woman’s Club has identified working with refugee mothers of children in the Rockford Public Schools as its next major philanthropic project. Volunteers will commit to this project for many years to come.

Elise Cadigan, a licensed clinical social worker, is also a past president of the Rockford Rotary Club, where she led project development teams and worked on projects in Nigeria, Uganda and Kosovo for about 12 years.

“As a result, I am aware of the conditions in developing countries and have a comfort level working with families from other parts of the world,” she says.

She now leads the Rockford Woman’s Club’s philanthropic committee and says the “Newcomers: Keep Your Culture, Change Your Life” project was approved last May. Small-group meetings began in July. The goals of the project are to help the refugee women develop friendships, improve their language skills and knowledge of Rockford, have a better understanding of their rights and responsibilities on their way to U.S. citizenship, and build up their confidence to be productive residents.

It’s a challenge for all involved.

“People can’t comprehend how difficult every moment is in the United States for these refugees,” Cadigan says. “Everything is new and something they haven’t experienced before, and we believe it takes forming friendships to help them overcome the obstacles and have a more meaningful life here.”

Focusing on Refugee Mothers

Miriam Castro-Rodriguez, parent and community liaison for the Rockford Public Schools, was instrumental in helping the woman’s club identify this need. According to state department refugee data, Illinois accepted 2,567 refugees in 2016; 3,045 in 2017; and 744 in 2018. From October 2017 through August 2018, 635 refugees arrived in Illinois. Ninety-eight of those came to Rockford and five more will arrive in the next month.

The numbers are down this year, Castro-Rodriguez explains, mostly because of federal government regulations including a travel ban. Most refugees come from the Middle East, Central Africa and Asia. In Rockford, we have refugees from Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Africa, Afghanistan and Asia, as well as immigrants and asylum seekers.

Refugees, or newcomers, are not to be confused with legal or illegal immigrants or asylum seekers. Refugees are legally in the United States and on their way to becoming citizens after fleeing for their lives from war-torn countries.

Adult refugees often travel long distances through rough conditions to escape war. Many have been bounced around from one refugee camp to another for years. Some of their children were born in refugee camps and have never been able to go to school. The families, intact or not, don’t always understand the language and culture of the places they’ve been, and they don’t know what it means to feel comfortable and at peace. Many have known only fear, having seen family and friends killed; they’ve been traumatized by war and sometimes suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. They oftentimes don’t know what it means to have hot meals, electric lights or comfort at night.

“They don’t understand our way of government and are afraid of authority because they have never met anyone in power who wasn’t mean,” Cadigan says.

So, to help families integrate and feel at home, learning conversational English is the first step.

The school district’s bilingual department offers English as a Second Language (ESL) in every elementary school. Lincoln Middle School has an entire wing dedicated to bilingual classes and services for newcomers, and East High School offers classes and has a newcomer program as well. Adult ESL classes are offered at many churches, the Rockford Literacy Council, Rock Valley College and Rockford Today Networks. Catholic Charities offers an orientation for newcomers.

The bilingual staff at Lincoln is helping the volunteers at Rockford Woman’s Club learn about cultural differences. Club members have to pass the same background check required of other school volunteers.

Cadigan and others working with refugee families have observed that children are the most resilient and adaptable, and are able to find comfort with their peers and teachers at school, while mothers are often left home alone. Children tend to mirror their parents’ characteristics and attitudes, so, by helping the parents, the children will also be helped.

“Helping refugees is not only about the language,” Castro-Rodriguez adds. “Where these people come from, parents don’t have the same involvement in the children’s education as we do here. A small apartment is like a huge home to these families, and they need to understand how to work appliances and how to function as citizens.

“Oftentimes, the man of the family (if there is one) is working and is the only one who knows any English, and the woman stays at home except to go grocery shopping or attend church,” she continues. “Women will impact their families and the lives of others in the community by learning to be better-functioning citizens through personal growth. I tell the refugee women to be open to learning the language of this country. They can keep their own language and customs, but they need to be able to adjust to life in this country. Once comfortable with the language, they can be open to doing more things and being more independent.”

The needs of local refugee women will help to determine the topics of regular meetings, Cadigan adds. In September, the women went to Valli Produce to learn about reading food labels, in hopes of making healthier choices for their families.

The newest development of the Newcomer Project is a partnership between the woman’s club and YWCA Northwestern Illinois to offer newcomers a wider access of services.

Kris Machajewski, chief executive officer of the YWCA, says the network will help the woman’s club meet its goal of helping women become independent and thriving members of the community.

“We’re excited about this partnership because it opens the door to a whole new community of immigrants and refugees who can benefit from the YWCA Immigrant Family Resource Program and other vital services we offer, like child care subsidy, parenting resources and family advocacy,” she says.

It’s expected the woman’s club will work on The Newcomer Project for at least five years, with each member committing to at least one year of service in whatever way she can help, while plans are underway for the school district to establish a Newcomer’s Center, where all services will be centralized.

Misael Nascimento, executive director of the bilingual department of the Rockford Public Schools, is in charge of planning the center. He says the reality is a long way off, but it’s a goal worth pursuing.

“We do want to have a newcomer’s center, but it will take a lot of planning, a lot of funding, and a lot of questions need to be answered, mainly where is the money coming from?” he says.

At best, designing a plan and then presenting it to the school board for approval would take at least two years, he estimates.

Still, he is working to see the center become a reality by working on a budget and identifying a location – most likely a vacant school that could be renovated for classes, workshops and seminars aimed at students and parents. He hopes local businesses and organizations will help support the center through funding and teaching classes.

Empathizing with Newcomers

Mustafa Abdall, an ESL math and science teacher at Lincoln, is one of six bilingual teachers who make up the Transition Program of Instruction (TPI) to help newcomers make the gradual progression to regular classes. About 120 students are in the program and, amongst the 800-member student body, about 100 languages are spoken at Lincoln, he says.

Heather Savaiano is also a member of the TPI team and an ESL history teacher at Lincoln. She says teachers who work with the newcomers can’t fully identify with what the students have been through, but they can show they care and help bring about change in the lives of the children.

“We can’t walk in their shoes and we will never fully understand what they have been through, but we can be understanding, compassionate and tolerant,” she says. “When the students first come to school, many of them have a blank look on their faces. The look of terror in their eyes indicates they have been through something horrific. So, as teachers, we just try to gain their trust and help show them the way to a new life.”

In general, most children will begin to feel comfortable in six to 12 months, she says. Lincoln and East High School have the largest newcomer population in the district, she adds.

Lincoln Principal Jim Parker says a main goal at his school is making the TPI kids feel accepted and engaged.

“Imagine not being from this country, and a couple of days after arriving, you are in school,” Parker says. “Our community owes it to this population to welcome them and try to give them a sense of belonging and safety – and that begins in school. If these students can’t get a good education, what do they have to look forward to?”

The multi-cultural community and newcomer programs at Lincoln have given the Rockford Woman’s Club a good foundation to work with families and involve more of the community. For example, Nina Kuljanin-Thompson, administrator of Alden Park Strathmoor, has donated the facility’s community room for newcomers to participate in weekly sewing classes. Sewing machines, fabric and sewing supplies have been donated, but more are needed. People wanting to contribute supplies can call Cadigan at (815) 985-8300.

A refugee herself, Kuljanin-Thompson came from Yugoslavia to America with her parents and siblings in 1995. Cadigan, one of the first people she met in Rockford, invited the family to a play at the Coronado Performing Arts Center.

“This was our first introduction to the culture,” she says. “Because of the kindness she showed our family, I wanted to do the same for others.”

Get Involved

Rockford Woman’s Club has a long history of identifying empty spaces in the community that can be filled by caring people who will commit to making a difference in people’s lives for many years, until the cause is taken up by another organization or it becomes self-sufficient.

The club’s last philanthropic project, “Sharing Our Closet,” lasted 15 years and encouraged women to donate new or slightly worn business attire for disadvantaged women who could purchase the clothing at a minimal cost for job interviews and work.

Anyone interested in joining the woman’s club and helping with the philanthropic project can connect with the organization online at or by calling (815) 965-4233. As interest grows, more small groups will form, Cadigan says.

“This will be a fun project to work on because everyone wins,” she adds.