Columbia alum helps refugees with living necessities

By Amina Sergazina, Staff Reporter

Nan Warshaw, along with other volunteers, organizes donations for the free store. K’Von Jackson

When refugees get settled in a new empty apartment in an unfamiliar country, they have to learn to navigate day-to-day living in a new environment. Where to buy necessities, how to apply for school and where to make friends become experiences that they must start from scratch. The Refugee Community Connection helps with just that.

Nan Warshaw, president and co-founder of the RCC, received her Master of Arts degree in entertainment and media management from Columbia in 1993 and received a Doctor of Arts honorary degree from Columbia in 2015.

RCC is a volunteer-based organization helping refugees and special immigrant visa holders through “adopting” a family and concentrating on their needs.

Since 2009 a Special Immigrant Visa has been available from the U.S. for Afghan and Iraqi people who worked with the U.S. military. At least 263,000 Afghan civilians have been affiliated with the U.S. mission and tens of thousands are eligible for SIVs, according to the International Rescue Committee.

Stacks of boxes and clothing sit on shelves waiting to be given to refugee families. K’Von Jackson

According to RefugeeOne, the largest resettlement organization in Illinois, Chicago can expect more than 1,500 Afghan refugees to make their home here.

The majority of refugees get settled in the Rogers Park and West Ridge neighborhoods, with some settling in Skokie and Albany Park.

“We supplement what the resettlement agencies are not able to provide, and we are not an official resettlement agency, we are welcoming neighbors,” Warshaw said.

Warshaw said RCC has always been locally operated, and recently after the media coverage of the Afghanistan and Taliban conflict, more than 2,000 people joined the RCC Facebook group.

“We have to make our country more compassionate, there’s so much division and hate out there,” Warshaw said. “I’m not going to take my time to argue with people with differing views; instead I’m going to take action and do things right here where I can make a difference. … Everyone else can do that too, and the more we do that it makes our country, our city, our world a better place.”

From kitchen utensils to winter clothing, the free store offers anything to help families get settled in Chicago. K’Von Jackson

Warshaw said RCC is contacted by at least one new family every day, and people normally find out about the organization through word of mouth. Usually, a member of the community lets RCC know that a family member or a friend is coming from Afghanistan, but recently they started working with resettlement agencies due to a high number of refugees.

Evan Zemil, co-founder of RCC, said he met Warshaw in 2016 while he was giving a speech at a church while watching the presidential election returns.

Zemil has many years of experience, helping more than 200 families in the Afghan community.

“[Warshaw has] been working tirelessly trying to get people involved, she’s like a whirlwind,” Zemil said.

RCC has two free donation stores located in Albany Park and Rogers Park, in which refugees can get everyday necessities like furniture, dishes, feminine products, diapers and any other household items.

Patricia Nelson, a co-admin of the RCC Facebook group, volunteers at the RCC donation store and has dedicated eight to 14 hours a day helping refugees since 2017.

Children’s shoes overflow on shelves and racks in the free store. K’Von Jackson

Nelson said she connects with many families while volunteering at RCC.

Last winter a family came outside in thin clothing and flip-flops. After they received the goods from RCC, the 10-year-old boy yelled “Happy Christmas!” and threw his hands in the air.

“I think I cried all the way home,” Nelson said.

Nelson said she has heart problems and a late-stage illness that destroyed her liver, but the thought of someone needing her makes her get out of bed. She admires refugees’ drive to move forward, especially the children.

“I haven’t met anybody who hasn’t been really appreciative and trying, no matter what they’ve been through. I admire them,” Nelson said.

Warshaw said RCC is most in need of people willing to donate their time as volunteers. Even a few hours of working at the donation store or remote outreach work can make a difference. More information is available on the RCC Facebook page.