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Holistic living/learning refugee resettlement center at the intersection of healing and sustainability

A residential transition center with on-site mental health support, legal services and job-readiness training, all on a working farm.

Photo of Ellie

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The spike in refugee migration over the past several years has been called the worst refugee crisis since World War II. Hundreds of thousands of refugees are fleeing conflicts in the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere. As immigration policies tighten in the US and around the world, it has become increasingly challenging to provide adequate services for asylum seekers and new citizens. It is a perfect storm of human and environmental disaster, a symptom of violent conflicts fueled by competition for resources among oil companies, manufacturers, and large agricultural conglomerates, uprooting many desperate individuals and families along the way. In short, a convergence of crises in peace, prosperity, and planet.

When survivors do manage to escape, often carrying little other than the clothes on their backs, countless obstacles stand in the way of a smooth transition from trauma to resettlement, even with the support of organizations working tirelessly to support them. Too often mental health support is sacrificed for seemingly more immediate needs around shelter and income. Too often refugees, asylum seekers, and other immigrants to the US trade their lucrative careers in medicine or engineering only to work remedial jobs to make ends meet. Too often we miss the opportunity to learn from the lived experiences of courageous survivors from all over the world.

Imagine if the need to find housing and work were eliminated during the initial transition period. Instead of scrambling to find a home and a job, likely taken advantage of by opportunistic landlords and employers, refugees are welcomed into a temporary home in a community of other refugees who can identify with the experience of risking everything for a chance at security.

This is my vision for a holistic living/learning refugee resettlement center. A core team lives and works on-site, providing mental health support for trauma survivors, legal services for long-term resettlement and human rights advocacy, job-readiness training for in-demand careers, and English language learning. That core team is supported by students and new practitioners in social work, psychology, law, public health, sustainable agriculture, and education.

The center is located on a working farm, using state-of-the art aquaculture techniques to extend the growing season and preserve water and nutrients. Produce is distributed among residents and sold at local farmers markets. The housing and community spaces are constructed from recycled shipping containers and other sustainably-sourced materials, adding structures as needed, and training residents and students in sustainable building practices. Career professionals and professors from a variety of fields are invited to come serve as job-readiness trainers in exchange for room and board on the beautiful site in Colorado.

Everyone is trained in trauma-informed care and cross-cultural communication. Everyone is encouraged to learn from one another’s skills and experiences. Regular center-wide and community outreach programs are organized to build empathy and understanding among residents and with the surrounding community.

By the time residents have completed the transitional program, they are prepared with the mental health coping mechanisms, job skills and certifications, and legal advice they need not just to survive in a new home, but to thrive and succeed.

Explain your idea

This intervention is a holistic living/learning refugee resettlement center with an explicit emphasis on mental health support, legal services, job readiness training, learning opportunities for residents and staff, and sustainable farming and housing practices. It addresses the interwoven issues of mass migration and trauma, environmental degradation and disasters, and employment challenges for new immigrants and young professionals alike. Refugee families and individuals are eligible to live, learn and work on-site for the first six to twelve months of their time in the United States. Throughout their time at the center, refugees are provided with regular mental health support, English language learning, legal services, job-readiness training in a variety of fields, and cross-cultural exchange opportunities. Education is at the core of the approach. Every element is an opportunity for educational development. This includes hiring practices, giving former residents, recent immigrants, students, and young professionals the opportunity to apply their skills and continue learning through practice. The center also operates on a working farm, employing sustainable aquaculture techniques and eco-friendly housing and community structures. The produce is shared among residents, as well as sold in local farmers markets. The center also hosts and participates in community outreach programs, working to build understanding and tolerance within the surrounding community. This further promotes a smooth transition once residents complete their time at the center and begin searching for outside housing and employment. As residents transition to new homes and jobs, they receive ongoing support from job-readiness trainers, mental health counselors, immigration lawyers, and language teachers. They also have the option to apply for positions with the center, supporting incoming residents as they begin their own transition to the United States.

Who Benefits?

First and foremost, new refugees and asylum-seekers to the United States benefit from the holistic model and living/learning environment, receiving intensive support in order to ensure a smooth transition into new housing and employment when they move off-site. Because of the heavy emphasis on education at all levels, other beneficiaries include: - Students and new practitioners in social work, psychology, law, public health, sustainable agriculture, and education: opportunity to launch their careers and learn from the deeply intentional community education model - Job trainers: meaningful opportunity to share hard-earned skills - Universities and colleges, Americorps, and other professional training programs: fantastic placement site for early-career professionals and interns - Surrounding community: opportunity to attend cultural events and buy local organic produce year-round - Local ecosystem: sustainable housing and farming practices with community training to scale off-site

How is your idea unique?

This intervention is unique in the deeply holistic design of the model. Education is at the core of all programs, encouraging residents, staff, volunteers, and community members to learn from one another’s cultures, experiences, and skills. Everyone involved is given the opportunity to strengthen existing skills and build new ones. Every element of the program and center, from official educational programs to the farming and construction practices, present an opportunity to learn on-site and share with the surrounding community. Mental health is integrated into job training so residents learn to use their work as part of their trauma healing process. The controlled environment allows for careful attention to individual needs and intensive evaluation of program effectiveness. The location in Colorado is strategic for attracting job-readiness trainers to a retreat-like work environment, and for employing refugees in the rapidly-growing state economy.

Idea Proposal Stage

  • Research & Early Testing: I am exploring my idea, gathering the inspiration and information I need to test it with real users.

Tell us more about you

I am an individual with twelve years of experience in international peacebuilding and community development, and a strong network of community organizers, social workers, advocates, and educators. I am a former Peace Corps Volunteer, an educator, a peacebuilder and community mediator, a program and curriculum designer, and a perpetual student. I will be starting my masters in Social Work at University of Denver in the fall, and look forward to pulling the university into my network as well, engaging the active service learning and social justice network, as well as the Social Work school, the Law School, the School of Professional Psychology, the International Studies program, the Medical School and the Environmental Studies program. This is my vision, and my life’s work. It is the reason I am going back to school to study mental health and trauma recovery. There are many roles for partnerships within this initiative. From well-established refugee support organizations, to government resettlement programs, to college and university research centers, to Americorps and Habitat for Humanity, to local farmers markets, to state-wide and local cultural centers, to job trainers and employers. With education at the core, the opportunities to learn from and with each other are endless.

Expertise in sector

  • 7+ years

Organization Filing Status

  • No, but we plan to register in the future.


Join the conversation:

Photo of abdullah ibrahim

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Photo of Erin Adelman

Such an amazing idea. Would love to see this come to fruition!!

Photo of Lee Kaplan

Brilliant, compassionate project. If you're looking for English professors to work with refugees once you're funded, I'm interested.

Photo of Dan

This is a great project, training refugees to get meaningful jobs and contribute to society while at the same time empowering them to create a community and help future refugees in the process. I hope more people see the value and support you in bringing this idea to full fruition. Count me in!

Photo of Kate Rushton

Hi Ellie!

Thank you for submitting your project idea. You might want to connect with Paper Airplanes: Using Tech to Give Refugees Educational Opportunities .

Are you able to meet this criterion in the challenge - 'You are a certified non-profit or for-profit organization, and have worked in your sector for at least a year'?

Photo of Ellie

Hi Kate! Thanks for the connection to the Paper Airplanes project. Lots of relevant overlap. I am not yet able to meet the criterion of being a certified non-profit. I am still in the process of establishing the organization. It is possible for me to work with a certified non-profit as a fiscal sponsor until our organization is registered. Will that work to satisfy the requirements for the challenge?

Photo of Kate Rushton

Hi Ellie!

Has the certified non-profit been in operation and registered for one year or more? Would it be also acting as a partner?

Photo of Ellie

Hi Kate. Yes, the non-profit would be a partner and will have been in operation for several years. Would that work? I can reach out and ask a couple partners to confirm official participation in the challenge if that qualifies us to continue to the next phase.

Photo of Kate Rushton

Yes, you would meet the criteria for 'You are a certified non-profit or for-profit organization, and have worked in your sector for at least a year.'

Photo of Ellie

Hi Kate,
I've reached out to University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work, where I will be enrolled in the fall, as well as the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers of Colorado to partner on this project. Both would be engaged as recruiting partners, sourcing staff, researchers, volunteers and interns to work with the center. Looking forward to hearing about the next round!