In the final months of 2021, shortly after the Taliban toppled the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, some 75,000 refugees arrived in the United States. More than 600 refugees came to Iowa, and a number of these were resettled in Cedar Rapids.
In the years leading up to this, the federal government had reduced some of the infrastructure in place for refugee services. By the time the refugees arrived, many service providers were overwhelmed by the combined challenges of the lingering pandemic, supply chain delays, reduced workforce, and decreased government funding.
The sudden influx of refugees, combined with these existing challenges, made the resettlement process even more complicated than usual. Earlier this year, as the federal supports that were in place began to taper off, transportation suddenly became a major barrier for refugees still navigating the resettlement process.
“Horizons was notified that transportation for Afghan refugees was causing significant barriers to accessing social services, medical services, and employment,” said Kelzye Bedwell, Director of Financial Stability at Horizons. “Through a collaborative conversation between the Community Foundation, Catherine McAuley Center, Eastern Iowa Health Clinic, Catholic Charities and others, we determined that Neighborhood Transportation Service’s (NTS) micro-transit model could help.”
Recognizing the urgency of this need, the Community Foundation provided a $27,000 grant to fully fund the service for ten weeks while more sustainable funding options were explored. Within two weeks refugees had access to free rides to and from essential services.
NTS began in 1995 as a solution to transportation barriers to employment in Cedar Rapids. In 2021, NTS started a partnership with technology company Via, increasing the types of services they provide and allowing them to react quickly to changing circumstances in our community. With Via, NTS could use a web-based translation service for refugees needing transportation.
Refugees arriving in Cedar Rapids will always have a need for transportation—to government offices, medical appointments, and a wide range of other services—and having this program in place will help make these new Americans feel welcomed.
“NTS’ new service has transported clients to prenatal care appointments, English as a second language classes, employment, and much more,” Kelzye said. “The creative solution that emerged from crisis led to a long-term and expanding service that will increasingly and efficiently remove barriers for new Iowans in our community.”