Jul 28 2023
Alexis works as a case manager here at CWS Harrisonburg. He’s from Burundi, which he describes as “a small country in east Africa” where he grew up in a small rural village, and “spent a lot of time watching cows and goats” Alexis recalled.
As a case manager, his work stretches from filling out applications prior to a family’s arrival, grocery runs, home visits, to “making sure that they know how to call 911” Alexis explained. One of the challenges of working with clients is bridging the cultural divide. “I learned how to schedule my work and schedule the clients,” he said. Often, it’s difficult to send the message that things have to be planned in advance. Alexis described that “it's tough because I know where they came from. And to say no, it's [perceived as] rude, but I have to show them how it’s important to schedule our work.” There’s typically “a positive way you can show them that we [CWS] are also supporting them by completing our tasks” Alexis said.
Alexis arrived in the U.S. four years ago with a background in the medical field. Before working at CWS he worked as a CNA, a certified nursing assistant. He found an opportunity in providing interpretation, where he discovered CWS. Originally, he didn’t feel qualified enough to apply for the associate case manager position because of his English level. Yet, “I applied just for fun. I didn't expect to be accepted” Alexis said. Back in Burundi, there was a genocide, and for a time, Alexis and his family lived at a refugee camp, so he related to a lot of the clients. Additionally, he said “I saw how those people were struggling while I was interpreting for them. They were struggling coming to the US without any family and not speaking the language. I have that experience.” From interpreting he realized “that this is the opportunity where I can support those people. That's how I ended up joining CWS.”
Generosity is a strong value Alexis holds. “Back home, there is a proverb we use…to be rich, it's not what you have in your bank account, but what you have in your heart. Because to help somebody, it’s not just about giving money. You have other things that you can do to help. If I help somebody [by] interpreting at the hospital, [going] to DSS, or fill[ing] out an application, it's something that I think will be helpful” Alexis said. Of course, he got the job, and was eventually promoted to case manager.
A part of his work is facilitating a family’s or individual’s cultural and economic adjustments to the U.S. He explained, “It was tough for me [adjusting to life in the U.S.]. That's why I always explain to them that you have to be smart when you arrive here. To focus on your goals. Sometimes people think that when you arrive in the US, life is easy, but it's not.” As is often the case, people will arrive in a new country with expectations that don’t always match reality. “Coming from Africa, we do think that America is paradise. But when you get up here...some people are really disappointed because coming here after three weeks, you have to go to work. After two or three months you have to go to work and pay your rent. That is not what we expected” Alexis said. There are also more lighthearted aspects of cultural adjustment. For some families, it’s their first time seeing a typical bathroom. He said, “Sometimes, kids even run away when it [the toilet] flushes.” He enjoys having the opportunity to teach clients “from zero to 10.”
Another aspect of working as a case manager is teaching clients money skills, because economic systems are much different in each country. “Back home, we don't have enough money to save. It's just for today. And you don't know if tomorrow you will have enough food to eat. Which means that when they arrive here, we have to teach them [how to] budget” Alexis said. Saving can often be difficult for new clients to grasp, just because of their past experiences. Another hurdle is that clients “focus on supporting their family. I know that sometimes it's really tough to explain to people from here, because they don't really know the dynamic in Africa” Alexis explained. In Africa, Alexis’s older brothers skipped out on going to college in order to work and help pay for Alexis’s education.
“My older brothers, some of them decided to not continue to university to find a job that can help them to support their little brother. In my country there are technical classes, schools, you can take...if you want you can just find a job. But it's not well paid. it's different from here” he said. “Now they [his brothers] have their own kids,” Alexis explains, “they don't have enough to support their kids, because they left the school because of me…[and] gave me that opportunity to be who I am now.” Lots of families send money back to their loved ones in their home countries to repay them. Alexis often asks clients not to not send money home, but to budget so that rent and utilities are covered first, then allocate funds to send home.
Being a case manager is no walk in the park, and Alexis extends his gratitude to the CWS Harrisonburg staff. “We work together as a team. I don't feel ashamed to ask if there is something that I don't understand. I know that quickly I will get an answer or support. It's amazing” he said. Plus, volunteers are incredibly important to resettlement work, “I'm glad that in Harrisonburg, we have a great community that’s really involved as volunteers” Alexis said. Overall, Alexis looks forward to continuing working with clients and the CWS Harrisonburg team. He said, “I learned a lot and I keep learning…and I try to adjust myself and be really helpful.” Thank you, Alexis, for all your hard work at CWS Harrisonburg. We look forward to seeing your future contributions.