Celebrating CWS Harrisburg’s Growing Impact

Durre Sharif | June 27, 2024

CWS Harrisburg team celebrating their Family Field Day in April

CWS Harrisburg is a dynamic and enthusiastic office, having completed our first full fiscal year in 2023. Initially, we planned to resettle 110 refugees, but ultimately resettled 135. We began the next year with a stated capacity of 250, increased it to 440 by January, and approximately four weeks ago, raised it again to 567. For this upcoming fiscal year, we’ve set our capacity at 935 refugees. This growth is possible because we feel supported, heard and empowered by the Office of Refugee Resettlement and the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration , both of which demonstrate the ever-evolving support that local resettlement agencies receive.

The impact of this support and continued financial growth was evident when our office director, Alex Swan, asked for our dream staff structure and positions. Thanks to the additional funding and flexibility, we made these dreams a reality. We created new staff positions crucial to the reception and placement team, such as a Health Liaison for medical-related core services, an Education Navigator for school enrollments and relationships with local schools, and a Housing Administrator to manage utilities, rent payments, and more. These specialized roles allow case managers to focus directly on clients without needing expertise in multiple areas.

Our extraordinary growth began with a director who believes in hiring good people and trusting them to work independently and to get the task done. This philosophy fosters creativity, curiosity and action. We practice transparency with our staff, involving everyone in critical discussions before making formal decisions. A letter from Senior Vice President of Programs, Erol Kekic, inspired and united us to meet this historic moment in refugee resettlement. 

We are mission-driven and hire problem solvers who understand the significant difference in welcoming a refugee at age 15 versus 19, the 4-year timeframe of presidential terms. For instance, a 15-year-old can attend high school, learn English and set up for a great career, whereas a 19-year-old might miss these opportunities and be constrained to a life working an entry-level job with little opportunity to learn English. Additionally, we recognize that refugees from long-term camps, like those in the DRC, just want to leave and are grateful for any opportunity we provide, even if it’s basic.

Charlotte Fry, Dr. Leena Anil and the rest of the Pennsylvania State Refugee Team, as well as Valentina Ross and the CWS Lancaster office, are more than colleagues; they are beloved friends, advocates and supporters. This relationship is built on our reputation as a collaborative resettlement agency dedicated to serving any refugee in need. We often assist the state with various community refugee issues, reinforcing our commitment.

We demonstrated our collaborative spirit when Catholic Charities Harrisburg faced extreme capacity issues and needed to pause operations. We absorbed their pipeline, enrolled their recent arrivals in our Matching Grant program and helped find housing. Our efforts were greatly appreciated, highlighting our team’s approach to refugee resettlement in Harrisburg.

In an effort to retain and care for our incredible staff, our office director created a staff-led wellness committee. This committee organizes all staff monthly wellness activities including but not limited to yoga, mini golf, nature walks and “show and tell.” These activities and this committee have empowered our staff to care for each other’s wellness and have cultivated an environment where staff feel seen and heard. 

In another effort of wellness and self-reflection, we meet twice annually with an organizational consulting agency. This agency, Square Root, empowers leadership and staff with the necessary tools to fulfill our mission by conducting individual strength assessments and providing guidance on how to move forward collaboratively in our individual strength zones. 

Finally, we allow our staff the time and place to remember their “why.” Most recently, our Community Engagement team partnered with a local university to hold a “Family Fun Day” for our clients and community. Clients, community and staff bonded over performances of traditional music and dance from different cultures, fostering a sense of unity and celebration. Through shared experiences, music and sports activities, attendees created connections and friendships, embodying the spirit of community and inclusion. 

Our Resettlement Program Manager Sarah Michitsch, when asked what makes her stay in the work of resettlement, stated, “I’m the most challenged I’ve ever been, I’m the most rewarded I’ve ever been and most importantly, I’m the most supported I’ve ever been.”

Durre Sharif is the Associate Director of Resettlement and Engagement with CWS Harrisburg. To learn more about the work of CWS Harrisburg, click here.