Allows refugees to budget and save for houses, vehicles and education

y: Glenn Oviatt, Intern

For many newly-arrived refugees, saving money for a car, a home or a college education on a tight budget is daunting.

However, a recently renewed savings program at World Relief DuPage/Aurora will match the savings of qualified refugees and make it easier for them to secure necessary assets.

The Individual Development Account Savings Program (IDA), which began in October, can match up to $2,000 for single refugees and $4,000 for families toward a home, a vehicle, post-secondary education or training, or the expansion of a small business.

With funds provided by the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), the program will last for three years, and replaces the previous five-year IDA grant which ended in September.

Laurel Opal, IDA Coordinator at World Relief DuPage/Aurora, said the program has three main components: asset development, self-sufficiency and planning for the future.

Opal said every participant is required to organize a household budget, attend basic banking classes and take part in asset-specific trainings such as home-buying informational sessions or vehicle maintenance classes.

“The program helps newcomers contribute to their community and helps stimulate the local economy,” Opal said.

Adam Beyer, Employment Services Director at World Relief DuPage/Aurora, said the classes, trainings and experiences of the program ultimately empower participants to become more self-sufficient.

“One of the goals of the IDA program is to teach people how to save – to show them how much money you can save if you put away a little bit every month and how you can improve your life through that,” Beyer said.

Burmese refugees Hoi Vang Thang, husband John and baby (front left) saved to buy a used car through the help of Opal and Beyer of World Relief DuPage/Aurora (front right) and Michael Soehlke, Facility Manager at Community Bank Wheaton/Glen Ellyn (back left).
Photo courtesy of Community Bank Wheaton/Glen Ellyn.

A great part of that empowerment process happens through World Relief’s partnership with Community Bank Wheaton/Glen Ellyn, where all IDA participants have their accounts.With free checking accounts and help from interpreters, Community Bank has been personal and gracious to the refugee community, Beyer said.

“It’s a good learning place,” Beyer said. “I think there are some refugees who come here with banking experience, but for most, it’s a foreign experience.”

Through the previous five-year program, 157 of the 255 participants successfully secured money for their asset goals.

Of those, 14 purchased their first home, 13 acquired higher education or training for themselves or their children, and nine started or expanded a small business. Unexpectedly,121 participants successfully purchased a vehicle.

Opal said many applied for homes when the program began in 2005, but after three years, the economy bottomed out and many lost their jobs. Incapable of saving money, the jobless participants were also unable to qualify for a mortgage loan.

While some dropped out of the program, others simply changed their asset goals.

“We had a lot of people change their goal to [purchasing a] vehicle,” Opal said. “Almost all of the people in the final year and a half of the program applied for a vehicle.”

Beyer said their achievements provided great benefits for themselves and their communities.

“A lot of the refugee communities are usually [limited] by having no transportation or having inadequate transportation,” Beyer said. “This puts them in a position of increased dependence on World Relief and others in the community.”

Through the help of the IDA program, many refugees who previously searched for an affordable but unreliable car were able to secure funds to buy a more stable vehicle.

“Suddenly they have this vision of something better,” Beyer said. “Being able to drive an $8,000 used vehicle that’s reliable gives them a certain level of independence they hadn’t had before.”

Under the new program, however, Opal said she hopes to find more people who can apply to save for a home.

“If we find people with a little bit more stable employment and who are really serious about finding a home, they’re more than capable of doing so,” Opal said.

Additionally, Beyer said that having a “steady stream” of successful IDA graduates over the next three years can positively influence the wider refugee community.

“They can be examples to show that it’s actually possible to do these things–even as newly-arrived refugees.”