When Marina Peshterianu speaks about Bridge Refugee Services it’s with a huge smile on her face. Peshterianu is the non-profit’s Associate Director. The program was founded in Knoxville in 1982, with its branch office opening in Chattanooga in 1994. Peshterianu has been with the project since 1999. She tells me all of this started with a passion to be a good samaritan and to always help a stranger.
Bridge Refugee Services helps those who are fleeing persecution, war, political unrest, and genocide in countries all over the world. Their first steps are to resettle refugees into the community so they can rebuild their life. Peshterianu says they go through all of the vetting and necessary steps in the process to get them here, and it’s very lengthy. She says the average refugee spends 20 years in a camp, and the average amount of time for them to come into the United States is 24 months. Right now the average percentage of people who will be resettled in a permanent home is less than 1%. According to Peshterianu, there are 80 million displaced people, 45 of them would qualify as a refugee. This means someone who fled persecution will have a well-based fear for the rest of their life.
It's a life-saving program, it's very important that I think everybody understands. It's not the choice. It's just a life-saving humanitarian, human thing to do. These people flee because they realize that if they stay, their life will be in danger.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees will identify those who are set up in the refugee camps and then bring it to international attention and make sure refugees have conditions to survive. Those inside the camps do not know what country they will end up in, when, and if they get to leave.
Peshterianu says once they meet those coming to Chattanooga or Knoxville they settle them into apartments and have cultural orientations. They then set goals with refguees on how to achieve self-sufficiency, which could take anywhere from 6 to 8 months. Bridge also has many assistant programs, such as their employment program, school impact program, community connection, and case management.
The employment program helps assist newcomers to find a job to achieve self-sufficiency. They provide job readiness training, placement assistance, referrals to resources, and more. They also partner with a lot of employers in the community. Peshterianu says a lot of refugees are essential workers, that they are in our hospitals, grocery stores, food processing factories, and schools. She says they even worked through the pandemic in 2020 and never complained.
She says as they prepare newcomers, as they already have transferable skills and are strong and are hardworking people.
These are people that went through traumatic experiences were severely persecuted and had very little hope that they will ever find a place where they will be safe. So when it happens, the drive the motivation, the desire to rebuild life, you know, to go back to normal and to make it really worth it all the struggles and along the way is very big.
The Refugee School Impact Program works with local school systems, like Hamilton County Schools. Peshterianu says they have designated schools with the “English as a second language program,” also known as ESL. They also have summer programs, where they continue their education, and have fun with other classmates on field trips. Bridge also has a new program on its own called the “youth mentorship program.” They have a goal of getting every refugee training and a laptop so they can learn from home. Not only does Bridge Refugee Services partner with schools, but also colleges like UTC and Chattanooga State.
[The] American dream is still alive. Refugees are very positive people, everything after you run for your life, everything is in a different perspective. They're very resilient and very positive about the future.
Peshterianu says those who resettle want to be productive want to pay back to the country that welcomed them.
Now, how can you help Bridge Refugee Services? They have a volunteer program where they offer different volunteer opportunities to the community - from shopping for groceries to transportation to online English tutoring to helping set an apartment or help with a fundraiser.
participating in community support programs. Peshterianu says they never turn someone away, because there are a plethora of opportunities, depending on someone’s availability and personal preference. You can find a link to sign up here, or if you would like to make a donation you can click here.
I never felt even in the moments of despair that the community will not support us. You know, they were always there for us that always came through for us. And now we just look in the future with hope.
If you would like to learn more about Bridge Refugee Services, the interview with Marina Peshterianu is linked below, and trust me, you will want to listen.
My name is Jess and I love telling other peoples stories and bringing awareness to the community.