Asylee Women Enterprise, Interview #2

Item

Title

Asylee Women Enterprise, Interview #2

Description

Tiffany Nelms from the Asylee Women Enterprise talks about the ways in which their organization is adapting to COVID and continuing to provide a safe and supportive environment for their community. She also discusses the dramatic toll that the pandemic has taken on the refugee community.

Table Of Contents

00:01:20 Community Building; mental health and well being
00:4:00 Celebrating and finding joy; finding community
00:07:56 Community building; survival and tools from previous experiences
00:10:50 Honoring the dead; healing and mourning; survival and tools from previous experiences
00:13:48 Mental health and wellness; survival and tools from previous experiences; community
00:20:21 Government response to coronavirus
00:23:47: Assessment of relief work; government response to coronavirus

Transcript

Date Created

August 18, 2020

Interviewer

Iman AbdoulKarim
Fatima Bamba
Kayla Wheeler (advisor)

Interviewee

Tiffany Nelms

Community

Asylee Women Enterprise

State

Maryland

Place

Baltimore

Genre

Oral history

Subject

Survival
Government response
Community building
Mental health
COVID
Virtual community

Language

English

extracted text

Asylee Women Enterprise
Interview #2
Interviewee: Tiffany Nelms, Executive Director of Asylee Women Enterprise
Researchers: Iman AbdoulKarim & Fatima Bamba
August 18, 2020
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Time Stamps:
00:01:20 Community Building; mental health and well being
00:4:00 Celebrating and finding joy; finding community
00:07:56 Community building; survival and tools from previous experiences
00:10:50 Honoring the dead; healing and mourning; survival and tools from previous
experiences
00:13:48 Mental health and wellness; survival and tools from previous experiences; community
00:20:21 Government response to coronavirus
00:23:47: Assessment of relief work; government response to coronavirus
---------00:01:20 Community Building; mental health and well being
• A part of the community AWE provides to members is a community of childcare, which
means moments of respite for members who are mothers
• Conditions of coronavirus and social distancing exacerbates trauma, because a part of
overcoming members’ PTSD, anxiety and depression is being in a supportive
community. There is a sense of loss for this human connection with social distancing
and online programing
00:4:00 Celebrating and finding joy; finding community
• During their day program and During Ramadan, they provide a space for fasting
members outside of the dining room. This additional space creates a space for
conversation about Ramadan, culture of Iftar, and community learning between
members. Occasionally women come from countries where religious groups, including
those they are a part of, are in conflict among other things. So, the kitchen, dining area,
and the fasting space creates a neutral space and a safe space for conversation. Other
members may be fleeing their home countries because of their gender identities or
sexual orientation, which can be a moment of conflict between members because of
religious beliefs on gender and sexuality. AWE works to not recreate that sense of
persecution for members during moments of cultural exchange. AWE works to create a
space for conversation where everyone can discuss how they feel, and they monitor
conversations closely. Above all, AWE must be a safe space.
00:07:56 Community building; survival and tools from previous experiences
• The mental health organization they partner with, Intercultural Counseling Connection
(ICC), also helps support AWE. They are one aspect / piece of the community. So, when
moments of conflict happen, allowing others in the community, including ICC, to facilitate
conversations. AWE staff try to not take on the role of leader or authority during dialogue
between members. They try to create a space for dialogue before that happens.
• They have had trans members, and they ask members if there is anything they want to
share and try to facilitate conversation in a positive way before something happens.
00:10:50 Honoring the dead; healing and mourning; survival and tools from previous
experiences



Members come from countries at war, and have had intense personal loss. So, the loss
they experience back home is complicated by being away from your family and knowing
there is no justice for persecuted family members. Members have survivors guilt. The
ICC does a weekly counseling group. This creates mutual support of women
understanding what it means to experience loss, and the support AWE provides. It is a
long process. For example, they have survivors from the Rwandan genocide, and 20
years later it is still impacting the survivors.
00:13:48 Mental health and wellness; survival and tools from previous experiences; community
• Members come from countries where they have not had access to adequate medical
care. There are feelings of helplessness because people are scared for their families.
Coronavirus has been triggering, because they come from a country where there are
lockdowns and they cannot leave their houses. And to have Coronavirus come and
create similar guidelines, it is triggering to their previous experiences.
00:16:37 Celebrating and finding joy
• Members are continuing to have moments of joy, and working with members to not feel
guilty about moments of joy because of survivor’s guilt and being in the U.S.
00:17:40 Assessment of relief work; community building
• AWE resources - they also partner with Intercultural Community Connection for
counseling and mental health resources; medical groups that serve the homeless; create
job readiness programs; facilitate cultural orientations; and have therapeutic garden and
a vegetable garden. During normal times, they do outings, like the end of summer
picnics at the beach. Healing comes in many forms, so they offer different kinds of
spaces for members to heal. For some, it is planting vegetables they are familiar with
from their country, this can be just as therapeutic as counseling for some.
00:20:21 Government response to coronavirus
• Coronavirus resources are dependent on immigration status. The government tells
asylum seeks / members they can be in the U.S., but must wait for years to get visas,
and in the meantime, they cannot work, are not eligible for cash assistance, food
stamps, unemployment, etc. AWE had higher expectations for government support
considering coronavirus since the virus disproportionality impacts immigrant
communities, in urban areas, relying on public transportation, etc. Members and asylum
seekers have been left out of these government programs.
00:23:47: Assessment of relief work; government response to coronavirus
• New issue arising with seekers not being able to apply for work permits with changes to
USPS. Now UPS wont ship to post office boxes, where members applications for work
permits are submitted. So, you have seekers who trying to do the right thing by applying
on time for their permits and sending in all their documentation, but the applications
won’t be received in time because of USPS changes. And now seekers will lose out on
this opportunity to work, likely for 2 years, and will face homelessness because of not
being able to work.
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Fatima Bamba (00:00):
Okay, so to begin, we sort of... First of all, thank you again for joining us. And speaking to us, our last
conversation was incredibly insightful. And to sort of the work that you do, the work that Ashley does,
and we really wanted to sort of get more specific about some of the things that we talked about last
time. And I know a few of the things we spoke about was about the sense of community that Asylee
builds and how you all maintain a sense of family almost, with your clients, workers, and volunteers. And
so we sort of wanted to discuss a little bit more about what community looks like or recap what
community looks like now with social distancing, with coronavirus and what that looks like now, what it
looks... how it's changed, how it's different and how that might affect what things look like in the future.
Not just now.
Tiffany Nelms (01:09):
Yeah, that's a really good question. That's a really good question. So I think we're trying to navigate that
too, because it's hard to kind of recreate that dynamic that we have in person with people. So we've
moved our classes online, but now we're in the place where we have class, we have the same
programming, the English and the computer class and the cultural orientation, and people are really
happy to see one another on the camera and talk and chat, but it's not the same as being physically
present in the same space.
Tiffany Nelms (01:56):
[inaudible 00:01:56] does a lot of that. The community building that we do, women holding other
women's babies or feeding somebody else's child that's about community, but also a little bit of
breastfed for our participants, who many of them are single parents. They are still missing that. And so
while they have that connection virtually, it is not the same. And we recognize that we're not going to
be back together again until there's a vaccine, which will be months from now. And maybe the fallout
from some of that is this... The more exacerbated symptoms of PTSD and things that they were already
experiencing when we were all together in person. But one of the key components of resilience for
people who are experiencing PTSD is being part of a supportive community. And so I would say the way
that manifests itself and how the symptoms of their PTSD, anxiety, depression looks different now than
it did before. And we are still connecting people to mental health services. But again, those are also all
being done virtually. And so there's a real sense of loss over that human connection all the way around.
Fatima Bamba (03:36):
Thank you for that. So just on that note, we sort of wanted to ask in that case, I don't know if it would be
applicable in this case, but have there been any religious sort of services or customs as far how is Asylee
going about celebrating those kinds of things, any markers for important dates that usually around this
time people would be in celebration or recognition of?
Tiffany Nelms (04:06):
Yeah, that's a great question. I mean, we have participants in our program of all faith traditions. And so,
for example, during Ramadan, one of the big things in our program is that we have a communal lunch.
We sit together. So even if there's not a language in common, women are cooking together, sharing
food from their culture, sitting at the same table, feeding each other's children. So during Ramadan, as
an example, we... And the lunch is kind of tied into the day programs. If you're present at the day
program, even if you're not going to eat, we want you to be in the dining room, but during Ramadan we
make accommodations so that there is another space in another part of the building for the women that

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are fasting, that they don't have to be in the kitchen, in the dining room and also creating space for
conversation around, why are we fasting? And then, the culture of Iftar, what does that mean? How can
we share that together with other women who may have not ever known anyone that was Muslim?
Tiffany Nelms (05:10):
So we try to create that space. And even... It's interesting, some of our women come from countries
where they're in conflict because of their religions. And that does come up occasionally and kind of
breaking down those barriers and giving people the space to talk about their beliefs and not so much...
It's not that one is more right than the other, but by creating a neutral space where they can talk to each
other, which, if you're coming from a country, that's at war over religion and other things, you don't
necessarily have that space, that safe space. Very rarely we have asylum seekers for example that...
They're fleeing persecution based on their sexual orientation or their gender identity. So something like
that will spark protest by another participant because of their religious beliefs. And certainly while we
respect people's beliefs and backgrounds, we are always very clear that you don't have the right to
infringe on somebody else's beliefs. And we don't want to recreate that.
Tiffany Nelms (06:40):
We don't want somebody who's transgender, for example, to come into our program and feel
persecuted by somebody else from their same country who feels like they're going to help because of
their own religious beliefs. So how do we create the space to talk about it while still making sure
everyone feels safe and welcome? And that can be a little tricky to navigate, but I find that opening the
conversation up to the community about... If something happened, what happened? How did you feel?
How did the next person feel? And usually they draw a connection to "that's how I felt in my country".
So we try to monitor those things really closely because above all our program has to be a safe space. It
has to be.
Fatima Bamba (07:27):
In that case I'm assuming then there's a great deal of facilitation, maybe conflict resolution, training and
competency that either yourself or other members, employees that Asylee ave to have at least at a basic
level.
Tiffany Nelms (07:56):
Yeah. I would say we do. We also partner with an organization that provides mental health services and
they're in our building too. So they support that effort. But because we really try to make this... We're
just a part of the community. And that's how we differ from a traditional social service model is that
we're not the expert, the authority, we are a piece of this community. And so I find that when things like
this happen, opening it up to the wider community of participants and volunteers to help facilitate that
conversation or those conversations. I feel like we make more progress because it's more powerful for
somebody who's been persecuted to call out somebody else and saying, "You know, what? What you're
doing to that person, because they're transgender is what was done to you because of your political
opinion."
Tiffany Nelms (08:56):
So yeah, as a staff, we try to also be mindful of always kind of taking the role of leader or authority
facilitator. But certainly there are times where we do have to do that. I think also creating space for
dialogue before something happens. For example, to go back to the example, we've had a few

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transgender women and even from the beginning saying, "Do you want to share anything about
yourself? What do you want to share? How do you want to do that?". Because sometimes it's a bias and
sometimes it's just that people haven't known anyone that's transgender. So how can we facilitate a
conversation in a positive way before something happens? So everybody feels more familiar, but it's a
lot of work. I mean, we have a big community and people coming in and out always, but.
Fatima Bamba (10:12):
Okay. Yeah. To follow up on that, I sort of wanted to ask, like you said, you do have a big community and
obviously one of the most difficult parts and prevalent parts of COVID is sort of dealing with not only
people getting sick, but unfortunately people passing on and I'm not sure if Asylee has had to deal with
any loss within a community. But if so, we sort of wanted to hear a little bit about how either members
of the community are coping, clients, employees, more sorts of rituals to honor people that have passed
or what kinds of support to sort of aid people mourning and what that looks like within the community.
Tiffany Nelms (11:07):
Yeah. That's a good question. And it's something that we, certainly during COVID, it takes a little bit of a
different form, but when you work with people who come from countries that are at war, then we have
people very often in normal times that their brother is kidnapped or murdered or their spouse has been
disappeared or... So this loss is also complicated by being far away, you don't have the support of your
family and you don't necessarily know what's happened to your relative. You know, there's not going to
be any justice. So dealing with all of those things is very challenging. And then of course, kind of the
survivor's guilt that goes along with "I was able to escape, I'm pursuing asylum. I will eventually be able
to stay here long-term and be safe, but everybody I left in my home country doesn't have that luxury".
Tiffany Nelms (12:14):
So I think, our partner Intercultural Counseling Connection, they do a weekly therapeutic group, which
incorporates also a lot of movement, dance and music. But I think that that... And they also provide
individual counseling, but that mutual support women who understand exactly what you're going
through, even if they can't do anything to change it, to have people around you through that period, but
at the end of the day, and we tell people "we can't change or make that better, but we can stand with
you while you're going through this". And it's a long, long process. I mean, we have women who are two
or three years into their asylum case, but they're survivors of the Rwandan genocide and 20+ years later,
you still see the impact every day in that person's ability to function. Even on a very basic level. This is
not like getting over a divorce or having a parent or somebody close to you die of natural causes or a
disease.
Tiffany Nelms (13:26):
I mean, this is what they call complex PTSD, right? It's trauma experience over a long period of time or
multiple exposures to trauma that most of us born in the US have no real understanding of. And then
with COVID, I would say that quite a few of our women come from countries where their families have
very limited access to medical care either because of their lack of financial resources, or there's just not
the infrastructure in their country to provide anything other than very basic healthcare. And even then
they don't the supplies they need to provide that. And the feelings of helplessness, I would say that's
kind of a common theme. People are really scared for their families and also kind of the triggering their
own trauma. A number of our women are from countries where they're on complete lockdown. You can
go out one day a week to go to the store for three hours. And other than that, you can't leave your

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house. And when you come from a country that's been at war, you've experienced that same kind of
thing, even though it's for a different reason, it kind of takes you back mentally to that place.
Tiffany Nelms (14:57):
So it's hard. There's really no good solution. I mean, there's no solution other than creating a space for
them to talk about it with each other, support one another.
Fatima Bamba (15:13):
One of the things that I think it's interesting is often, at least in the discourse of sort of trauma, we're
also an advisor you hear often about how to find joy and how to find sort of little moments or tidbits, or
sort of happiness or relief to help cope. And I think sometimes, and in the case of your organization,
honestly, the reality is that you might not necessarily be able to find joy, but what you can do is to sort
of help people cope and ride the wave of whatever it is they're experiencing, whether it's trauma or
they're mourning, difficulty in whatever sense. Sometimes not necessarily finding the joy, it's just
helping people take it day by day. Yeah. And so, as you're speaking, I'm thinking about how Asylee is just
helping people really survive day by day, and how some things really are almost too difficult to sort of
make better. You can't really make it all better all the time.
Tiffany Nelms (16:32):
Yeah, that's true. And I feel like there were still lots of moments of joy and it's just kind of reinforcing
that it's okay. All of this stuff is happening to you and you don't need to feel guilty about having these
moments of joy.
Fatima Bamba (16:51):
Yeah, that's true too. That's true as well. A few more questions we wanted to know. So, and we just
wanted to make sure we have an accurate sense of all of the resources Asylee provide this members to
cope, right? Especially in this time of coronavirus. So you have your mental health services. People are
provided with food, essentials. People are provided with legal help, often, classes, right? Meetings. Now,
I guess a virtual sense of community. We want to make sure we're not leaving anything else out.
Tiffany Nelms (17:40):
Yeah. And we do partner, like you said, with the mental health service provider, Intercultural Counseling
Connection, we partner with Health Care for the Homeless, so people can have their physical health
needs addressed. In another part of our... and we offer the English and the job readiness and the
cultural orientation. We also have a garden in the back and we have a vegetable garden in the back, a
therapeutic garden in the front with flowers and benches and fountains and things. We do during
normal times, social gatherings, outings. We always have a end of summer picnic at the beach. These
kind of normal everyday things that people do that certainly we're missing right now, but healing comes
in many different forms. And so, we try to offer different kinds of spaces to do that. And for some of our
ladies, it's planting vegetables that they're familiar with from their country. And doing that every day for
four-five months and sharing with the community, what the vegetable is and how you cook it. And that
can be as therapeutic for one woman as going to counseling is for another. It's kind of created a very
broad view of what is therapeutic.
Tiffany Nelms (19:19):

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Yeah.
Fatima Bamba (19:22):
Yeah. I'm going to... Just, before we ask the last question in mind, is there anything else you'd like to
hear more about anything I'm missing?
Iman AbdoulKarim (19:36):
Yeah, no, I think that's great. I think something that... I know we touched on a little bit in the beginning
about how members are not necessarily eligible for a lot of the government resources. So I would say
maybe, I think it would be great to hear a little bit more about kind of like the government's response to
COVID and how your organization is working to fill those gaps. If you feel like there's not anything, I
mean, including all the vast resources you guys provide, but if there's anything that you've had to wrap
up in the meantime. I know that you guys are talking with medical professionals and doing that sort, but
if there's anything else that would be for sure.
Tiffany Nelms (20:23):
Yeah. I'll have to be careful to be diplomatic here. A lot of resources are based on someone's
immigration status. And so asylum seekers they're allowed to be here. And then it often takes years for
there to be a decision on their case. So we say, you're allowed to be here. You're allowed to apply this,
but we're not going to have an answer for you for a couple of years. And in the meantime, you're not
eligible for anything and you can't work and good luck. I mean, during a pandemic. And it's also in the
interest of the public health to provide the same resources and safety net for people who have this legal
status, that's kind of in limbo so that they're not forced to work in the informal economy when they're
sick, potentially exposing other people to the virus. But they're not eligible for food stamps, they're not
eligible for cash assistance.
Tiffany Nelms (21:31):
They're not eligible for the stimulus that the rest of us got, they're not eligible for unemployment. And
so I think I had higher expectations, especially given that this virus disproportionately impacts
immigrants and refugees because they live often multiple families or people under the same roof.
They're in very close quarters. Often, especially in urban areas, relying on public transportation, because
they can't get a license. They don't have money for a car. And they've really been left out of all of these
programs to keep the rest of us afloat. So that is very disappointing. This is not a situation that we're
dealing with for a month or two. I mean, this has already gone on for five months and will likely go on
for five more months. So though that population is just incredibly vulnerable. So we could certainly do
better.
Fatima Bamba (22:49):
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Anything else, Iman?
Iman AbdoulKarim (22:58):
No, I think we've covered it.
Fatima Bamba (23:02):

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Yeah. So in that case, thank you for speaking to us. I mean, if there's anything else at all, you want us to
know about Asylee, feel free, but if not, thank you so much for taking the time to really speak to us
about your work. The work you do is amazing, it's important, and I know it's of great benefit to your
wider community. So thank you for allowing us to first document this work and to provide it publicly in
our archive. That's much appreciated, but again, yeah. If there's anything last minute, you'd love for us
to know about Asylee. Feel free.
Tiffany Nelms (23:47):
Yeah. Thank you so much for doing this. I'm really... It's been nice talking to both of you and I guess one
just kind of tidbit from today. I think there's a shared concern about just things happening that kind of
undermine the infrastructure of our country. An example of how much harder these things impact
people like asylum seekers, immigrants, refugees, USPS is really in a crisis right now. Mail is significantly
delayed and the administration is implementing a new change. So in the past, asylum seekers could
apply for work permit five months after they submitted their asylum application. And there's a change
going into effect on August 25th, that if you haven't filed before then, most people will not be able to
get a work permit. And so Homeland Security has said, "If you're seeking asylum, you should just get
used to being homeless, find out your homelessness services in your community because you won't get
a work permit. You'll have to wait until there's a decision on your case, which could be years". So we've
been in this big push with volunteer attorneys to get all this paperwork submitted before August the
24th.
Tiffany Nelms (25:11):
And so this morning before I had my call with you... UPS won't ship to a post office box. So our hope was
we'd go to UPS, ship these important documents, so they could get their overnight mail, but they don't
ship to post office box, which is where all these applications go. And the postal service is taking weeks.
And so you're dealing with people who are trying to do the right thing. They're trying to submit their
paperwork. The postal service is in a shambles, which is not their fault, but the implication is that, the
consequence of that is that some of these people are going to lose out on the ability to work and likely
end up homeless for two years until there's a decision on their asylum case, because the very basic
systems in our country are not functioning that have nothing to do with immigration.
Tiffany Nelms (26:05):
So as frustrating and inconvenient as it has been for me to not get my mail regularly, but what the
impact on a single mom seeking asylum from Cameroon is huge and just makes life much harder than it
needs to be. So, yeah, we're seeing this impact all over, in many different ways, but yeah. So I want to
add that little tidbit.
Fatima Bamba (26:40):
Yeah. Thank you for that. I mean, yeah, I can imagine. Yeah, lots of craziness happening so I can imagine
how it affects your daily operations and real life can real lives, real lives, real people. It was just another
reminder that some of the decisions that are made higher up, all of them really affect real people and
real lives. And often it is life and death. It's a matter of people's livelihoods and their wellbeing.
Tiffany Nelms (27:20):
Yeah. For sure. Definitely.

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Fatima Bamba (27:23):
Yeah. Thank you so, so much for speaking to us.
Tiffany Nelms (27:25):
Thank you all.
Iman AbdoulKarim (27:26):
I thank you so much, Tiffany. And we'll be in touch if there's any maybe follow up questions, over email
or anything like that, but thank you so much for making the time when I know that you are so busy.
Tiffany Nelms (27:38):
Yeah. It's great to see you both. Good luck with your studies.
Fatima Bamba (27:41):
Thank you.
Iman AbdoulKarim (27:41):
Thank you.
Tiffany Nelms (27:42):
Okay. Bye.
Fatima Bamba (27:42):
Bye.
Iman AbdoulKarim (27:42):
Bye-bye.
Fatima Bamba (27:50):
I am trying to pause this recording. Work with me, work with me, work with me.

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