In the heart of New Orleans, a city known for its vibrant culture and welcoming spirit, a transformative initiative is underway to support young refugees in their journey to a new life. The Refugee Youth Mentor Ally Program (RYMAP) emerged from the Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans and was built to guide these youths through the complexities of their transition into an unfamiliar community.
Eileen McGowan, the Volunteer & Mentor Coordinator with Refugee Services, is just one of the driving forces behind RYMAP. With a passion for helping others and a commitment to building bridges between cultures, McGowan orchestrates a network of mentors dedicated to creating a safe haven for refugee youth. For many of these young individuals, this program offers not only their first taste of a new country but also their introduction to bustling city life.
“We want them to feel at home because, with refugees, it can be a traumatic experience,” emphasizes McGowan. The goal is to provide these young minds with a warm New Orleans welcome, ensuring they have the support, stability, and advocacy needed for a successful integration into their new environment.
The mentors in the program play a crucial role, offering their time and listening ear without the expectation of financial contributions. “Our mentors don’t purchase anything; it’s the gift of time and listening,” says McGowan. These mentors, ranging from engineers to medical doctors and more passionate community members, form a diverse group bound by a common purpose—helping their community thrive. The mentors are also encouraged to engage in various activities with their mentees, turning seemingly trivial tasks like navigating public transportation and grocery stores into monumental milestones for these refugees.
The refugees, aged 15-24, face unique challenges, including interrupted education and language barriers. To address these issues, mentors engage in a variety of activities, from assisting with schoolwork and providing suitable clothing to helping with job searches and interview preparations. The ultimate aim is to be resourceful guides and advocates for the mentees.
Catholic Charities goes beyond mentorship by offering free job placement programs, citizenship classes, and English classes. The program’s roots lie in a recognized community need, with McGowan and her team working tirelessly to fill the gap. She emphasizes the ripple effect of support, envisioning a happier and more adjusted youth eventually returning to their communities.
What sets RYMAP apart is the genuine dedication of the individuals involved. “The purpose of Catholic Charities is to make these refugees self-sufficient and give them back their dignity with empowerment so that they can stand alone,” says McGowan. After all, part of the Catholic Charities mission is to promote the dignity of every human and the potential of every human.
As McGowan puts it, “If you have it in your heart and you have it in your schedule, contact me, and I will lead you in the right direction.” Volunteers, especially those in roles such as pro-bono attorneys, doctors, and accountants, are always welcome to join this progressive journey.
The Refugee Youth Mentor Ally Program is not just a program; it’s a movement to build a more inclusive and compassionate New Orleans. As the next group of refugees prepares to embark on this life-changing journey, McGowan envisions the program’s continued growth, urging potential mentors to step forward. “It is only a four-to-eight-hour commitment per month for six months. We have the mentees; we just need the mentors,” she says, inviting the community to join hands in bridging lives and fostering a more united and empathetic society.