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Amid Pandemic, North Texas Relief Networks Adapt Refugee Outreach

Stella M. Chavez
Isabella Chamberlain helps hand out bags of food and supplies to refugees.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the International Rescue Committee in Dallas had a plan — to encourage its clients to fill out the Census. Now the rescue committee and other groups are also making sure their clients — many of whom are refugees — have enough to eat and know how to stay safe.

Twice a week, Isabella Chamberlain stands inside a blue shipping container at the TBK Bank Plaza in Vickery Meadow. She's handing out bags of food and supplies.

The plaza used to serve as a gathering place for residents of the ethnically-diverse neighborhood in Northeast Dallas. Children could check out books from inside the retrofitted container and groups would hold dance parties. These days, the plaza is mostly empty, except for Chamberlain and a few residents who stop by to pick up food.

Chamberlain works with the International Rescue Committee in Dallas. She coordinates the agency’s New Roots program, which teaches refugees how to plant and grow gardens.

“When the outbreak really started to take place, we immediately saw a need in our clients for food and, you know, it’s something that everyone’s seen,” she said. “It’s been hard to find in the stores.”

Credit Stella Chavez / KERA News
Residents of the Vickery Meadow neighborhood in Dallas line up to receive food and supplies from the International Rescue Committee.

Many of IRC's clients live within walking distance. The bags contain things like rice, beans, canned food, as well as produce grown in one of IRC’s five gardens – cilantro, onions and daikon radishes, a popular item among some of the clients.

“It’s been hard for families that all of a sudden all their kids are at home,” she said. “We have families of six, seven, eight, nine, 10 people living in apartments, so sometimes it’s hard to get out to the store in general.”

IRC has also translated flyers with information about COVID-19. They also encourage people to fill out the Census form online, send it in by mail or use a phone service for people who don't speak English. The agency is one of several providing assistance to refugee and immigrant communities.

Zahid Hussain works with ICNA Relief DFW, a nonprofit that’s also delivering food to families in need. 

“We have come across several elderly families, single mothers with children, and families who are on hand to mouth existence, paycheck to paycheck and got laid off because of the current crisis,” he said. “They all are struggling for food.”

The group, which runs three food pantries in North Texas, reached out to apartment complexes where families on limited incomes live. It’s also posted on the neighborhood app NextDoor, offering to help people apply for unemployment.

“We will have volunteers who will help them because they are kind of confused and they don’t know how to apply,” Hussain said. “Offices are closed. They don’t know; they are stuck there.”

As the pandemic continues, he says the goal is to make sure more people don’t get stuck.


Stella M. Chávez is KERA’s immigration/demographics reporter/blogger. Her journalism roots run deep: She spent a decade and a half in newspapers – including seven years at The Dallas Morning News, where she covered education and won the Livingston Award for National Reporting, which is given annually to the best journalists across the country under age 35.