As the COVID-19 virus has spread globally, Bridge Refugee Services’ leaders have taken their mission to promote hope to heart in East Tennessee.

“Our whole team is working collaboratively to help people cope,” said Bridge Executive Director Drocella Mugorowera. “This is a time of action, reflection, compassion, helping one another, sending messages of love and support and checking on one another. We are all in this together and we will get through it.”

Between October 2019 and March 18, Bridge welcomed 53 new arrivals. Thirty-one of those clients entered the country in March. This means learning new ways to serve clients while staying safe and healthy, as well as navigating continually changing government guidelines in how to respond to the virus. It also has meant delays in connecting clients with local resources, school and employment.

Amid school and business closures in recent weeks and government leaders urging residents to stay home to reduce the spread of the virus, Bridge staff in Knoxville and Chattanooga have been working with community partners and volunteers to ensure clients receive critical services and up-to-date life-saving information.

Bridge Associate Director Marina Peshterianu said the pandemic has challenged them to get creative with the way they serve their clients and the community.

“We are still operational, but we are limiting face-to-face as much as possible,” she said.

The organization has canceled all events through the end of May. Its staff has predominantly been working from home and conducting online staff meetings, and clients and new arrivals are only attending appointments considered essential such as healthcare screenings. Many formerly in-person interviews with outside agencies are now happening over the phone, and portions of the arrival process for refugees who came into the country in March have been delayed.

“Social services are not typically set up for remote work,” Marina said. “We’re learning more and more that we can take care of our staff and ourselves and take care of our clients. It’s just a question of learning new ways to do it.”

Bridge’s interpreters, for instance, have been serving as a “lifeline” for clients by contacting them via text and phone calls to assess their needs, she said.

“We’re checking with the interpreter to find out what the needs are and responding to their needs instead of them coming to the office,” Marina said. “It’s wonderful having to work into our day calling and checking on people. I think it will develop a closer bond with us and our clients.”

Case managers and interpreters are also educating clients via text, email and social media about the importance of social distancing and practicing good health habits like hand washing to reduce the spread of the virus.

“Information on coronavirus is available in all the languages and we have six interpreters and case workers whose job is to make sure that the people know what is going on and are taking all the precautionary measures and keeping up with social distancing,” Marina said. “They’ve shown a real understanding and desire to follow these instructions.”

In addition, Bridge has been updating clients about services still available to them in their communities.

When Knox and Hamilton counties announced they would be providing meals to students despite school closures, Bridge leaders contacted school administrators to arrange ways to get the food to clients without access to transportation.

“It’s been a great time as a community to come together just brainstorming what else we can do,” Marina said.

Bridge’s employment specialists and case managers have also been compiling resources for clients who have lost their jobs or had to scale back their work hours, as well as researching grant options to ensure funds are available to cover the costs of certain services during the outbreak, Drocella said.

Marina credits Bridge’s volunteers with continuing to support refugees throughout the uncertainty.

“It’s impressive how we have people who are really committed to this population,” she said.

Likewise, Drocella said she is encouraged every time someone contacts Bridge to see how they can help during this unprecedented time.

“That is very encouraging and gives us hope and energy to keep serving the most vulnerable people coming to us for hope,” she said.

Because of an interruption in services, new arrivals will need additional support in the coming weeks in terms of assistance with rent, utilities, food and other daily needs. Bridge is working to connect donors directly with clients, as well as accepting in-kind donations by appointment only and financial donations online.

We anticipate that Bridge Refugee Services funding will be affected by the pause on new arrivals due to COVID-19 pandemic, and refugees who have been in East Tennessee for a while steel need to be assisted through case management. Our annual fundraising goals of $275,000.00 will also be affected.

How can you help?

  • Contributing to our emergency fund of $20,000 or our general fund by sending a check to our office or make one time or a monthly online donation here.
  • Please contact our volunteer managers if you would like to volunteers virtually with refugee families or you want to drop off in-kind donation.
  • Pray for our organization, clients, partners, and needed resources.
  • Refer us to a potential donor.