With soaring unemployment rates and taxed health care systems across the globe, the COVID-19 pandemic has challenged everyone in unprecedented and unexpected ways.

But the coronavirus outbreak has highlighted how much more vulnerable refugees are during a global crisis.

“It’s definitely had an impact,” Bridge Program Manager Katie Weber said of the pandemic’s disruption of new arrivals’ ability to reach self-sufficiency in their new communities. “For people on the cusp, that’s been a big setback.”

In May 2019, Bridge’s Knoxville office began providing medical and mental health needs assessment and referral and social adjustment services to particularly vulnerable clients in need of longer-term intensive case management assistance.

“Bridge has been talking about the need to serve this population for a really long time,” said Katie Willocks, who manages the Preferred Communities program for Bridge. “It’s incredibly valuable to the refugees we have here.”

The program, which is funded by an Office of Refugee Resettlement grant and offers services to eligible clients for a year, has assisted single mothers, cancer and HIV+ patients, domestic violence victims, refugees with disabilities, as well as at-risk women, youth and the elderly, many of whom experienced pre-arrival trauma associated with war, violence and discrimination.

“This program takes into account that self-sufficiency requires more support,” Willocks said. “You’re working with one client, so it’s very targeted.”

The program accounted for 10 percent of Bridge’s Knoxville client population during its inaugural year, but Weber said case managers had already screened eligible clients and intended to enroll more during the program’s second year, which had been slated pre-COVID-19 to begin this month.

“We’re paused in terms of being able to enroll new clients in that program … because of the outbreak,” she said. “Twenty people arrived in March, which is quite a lot. Of those cases, three looked like they had a strong reason to be enrolled in (the PC program).”

Weber said the pandemic has disrupted many clients’ progress towards becoming self-sufficient, but particularly those enrolled in the PC program.

In the weeks leading up to the outbreak, for instance, Bridge had secured child care for a single mother who hadn’t been able to seek employment because she had no one to care for her children while she worked.

“Everything was set up for her to be able to become self-sufficient and seek a job, and then COVID hit and all the day care arrangements went out the window,” Weber said. “We’ve seen a lot of issues related to child care arise because quite a few day cares are closed down or only taking care of kids whose parents are essential workers.”

Willocks said 48 percent of Bridge’s arrivals last year were single head of household families.

Through the PC program, Bridge has been providing medical coaching and mental health assistance to some of those HIV+ clients, as well as an elderly refugee battling cancer and a pediatric cancer patient in need of a prosthetic arm.

With the arrival of the coronavirus in East Tennessee, Willocks has had to work with service providers to ensure those immunocompromised clients continued to have access to their life-saving medications and healthcare appointments without increased risk of exposure to the virus.

She’s also arranged for pregnant clients to continue attending their prenatal health appointments.

“It’s complicated in this environment of COVID, when most health care providers are doing telehealth as much as possible,” Weber said. “That does not tend to work as well for our clients. The (language) interpretation aspect tends to be very complicated with telehealth.”

The PC program provides housing assistance, budget coaching and transportation coaching, as well, but Weber said social distancing mandates have meant Bridge has had to suspend its in-person transportation training program for new arrivals, many of whom rely on public transportation to get to the grocery store or work.

“They’re not getting as hands-on an education in riding the bus,” Weber said.

In addition, public transit has restricted the number of passengers allowed onto a bus at any given time, which has meant longer waits at bus stops.

Prior to the outbreak, clients had been benefitting from enrollment in English Language Learning programs and at-risk youth had been receiving continuing education services to help them obtain their high school equivalency degrees.

But those services have also been postponed pending the pandemic.

“This is generally the time they’d be going to classes and trying to soak up some basic kind of English, which is critical to getting a job,” Weber said.

Taking courses online isn’t an option for most either, due to technology constraints.

“Many of our new clients do not have access to the internet or a computer,” Weber said.

While Bridge has used video conferencing through platforms like WhatsApp to communicate and “meet” with some clients, Weber said it’s no substitution for the kind of face-to-face interaction most refugees who rely on interpreters need.

“We would like to be able to get more laptops out to people,” she said. “With that, we could do more creative things with clients.”

With Social Security and state driver’s license offices closed since mid-March, many new arrivals have also not been able to secure required documentation to obtain employment or open bank accounts, Weber added.

In addition, Bridge’s Employment Specialist has been inundated with an increasing number of clients needing assistance seeking unemployment benefits.

“Helping people with unemployment has been our focus right at the moment because it’s critical for people to meet basic needs,” Weber said. “We’ve been in touch with a lot of employers locally to see if they’re still hiring.”

With rampant layoffs across the area, Weber said their clients, many of whom are just learning English and how to navigate their new communities, will be particularly disadvantaged in seeking new jobs.

“We fully expect the effects of the pandemic to continue and we definitely have concerns that the job markets are going to continue to be competitive and our clients are not going to be as employable as they need to be,” she said.

Despite the setbacks, Weber said the community continues to rally around Bridge by donating supplies and finding creative and safe ways to continue volunteer efforts.

“We so appreciate the support we’ve gotten so far,” Weber said. “We’ve been really overwhelmed and impressed with how many people in the community have checked in with us to make sure we’re ok and our clients are ok. That’s important for us and newcomers, in particular, who are feeling uncertain and scared. … That has a really huge emotional impact for the clients.”