With its picture-perfect beaches and reliably welcoming weather year-round, Southern California looks and feels like paradise on earth. For the hundreds of refugees and immigrants that arrive in San Diego County every year, paradise also means a newfound sense of hope, security and opportunity.
Hayder is one of those refugees. Having left Iraq with his wife, Zinah, and two young daughters two and a half years ago to escape the constant specter of violence, he summarized life as a daily goodbye to his family as he left home each morning. They came to San Diego with essentially what they could carry and no functional English.
“Everything is bad (in Iraq). No water, no safety, no anything. I’ll go to work and tell my family I might not come home,” said Hayder. “Everything is good right here…it is safe for my family.”
Like many that come to San Diego County with nearly nothing, Hayder relies upon support provided by community organizations like the San Diego Food Bank and Friendships for Hope, a National City, California-based nonprofit with a mission of empowering immigrants and refugees to become assimilated. In turn, nonprofits often depend on support from organizations including UnitedHealthcare to serve vulnerable people.
Founded in 2008 – with its missionary roots in San Diego for nearly a century – Friendships for Hope provides free ESL classes on-site and teaches retail skills at a neighborhood thrift shop.
“We focus on immigrants and refugees - Rwanda, Congo, Ivory Coast, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Myanmar, Bhutan, Latin speaking countries – and they are a needy group of people. They have left everything and don’t know the system,” said Will James, CEO of Friendships for Hope, who runs the organization with his wife, Peggy. “Many have not been to school and are illiterate even in their mother tongue.”
In most cases, they arrive in San Diego with little or no money, so gaining a newfound sense of safety comes with a price that isn’t monetary. It creates an immediate reliance on grants and generosity to not only help them assimilate, but satisfy the basic issue of hunger.
For the benefit of Friendships for Hope and more than 100 food bank sites in San Diego, UnitedHealthcare provided the San Diego Food Bank a $375,000 social responsibility grant to combat food insecurity and also expand Feeding Everyone with Equity and Dignity (FEED), a revolutionary database to make client registry more streamlined. The new database will also provide data gathered from the Food Bank directly to the San Diego County Department of Health to track client usage more effectively than ever before.
The grant was announced at a press event held at Friendships for Hope on March 27, 2019. “(This grant) provides million pounds of food to the food banks in San Diego and here,” said National City Mayor Alejandra Sotelo-Solis, who was in attendance for the grant announcement. “There is the dignity of using a flashy new food ID card, picking up food and going on with your day. That’s what UHC is doing for us.”
With limited food resources available, usually 8,000 pounds of food for approximately 400 families on an average week, FEED has already made Friendship for Hope’s Tuesday food bank events smoother and more efficient.
“The grant will really help, as we’ve been struggling to keep track of our clients. This county-wide program will allow us to help the whole county better understand their social determinant needs,” said James. “We also run entirely on donations, the annual budget is $300,000 with $25,000 going out every month and very little coming in. We rely on grants and generosity.”
For Will and Peggy, UHC members whose positive healthcare experience led them to recently sign up Peggy’s 92 year-old father to a UnitedHealthcare plan, providing food is a starting point. Some clients become volunteers at Friendships for Hope and, with a foundation of hope and empowerment, an encouraging number of families realize their version of the American dream.
“We’re being successful. It might not sound like much, but we’ve helped 250 families get off of welfare in ten years,” said Peggy. “We have one family of ‘raisers and grazers’ (smallholding family farming) that are first generation, and the daughter is going to medical school. This is really rewarding and amazing.”