Interview by Sarah Shumick
A former refugee from Ukraine, Nadia Kasvin and her family came to the United States with “three suitcases and a lot of dreams.” Now, Nadia serves as the co-founder and director for US Together, Inc., a nonprofit organization founded in 2003 to help immigrants and refugees integrate into their new community. They’ve had much to do in the last 16 years, serving more than 7,000 refugees and 2,000 immigrants. Nadia says, “We were given amazing opportunities in this country and I want to make sure that people that come to this country after us continue to have access to the same opportunities and be treated fairly.”
Give us a brief overview of your organization: Our organization was founded in 2003 by former refugees from Eastern Europe. The mission is to initiate, organize, and coordinate services to immigrants and refugees through education, advocacy, support services, information, referral, and networking opportunities to strengthen the community. To carry out this mission, US Together provides services in seven program areas: Interpretation/Translation Services; Refugee Support Services and Trauma Informed Case Management; Community Consultation and Technical Assistance Services; Employment Services, Financial Literacy Education and Microenterprise Development; Family Strengthening and Empowerment programs; Citizenship and Civic Integration Services; and International Programs. Guided by humanitarian and human rights values, US Together serves the needs of the most vulnerable groups of the society (such as women, youth, seniors, refugees and immigrants); facilitates their social, economic, linguistic and civic integration through client-centered and culturally appropriate services and helps build vibrant communities, as well as promote international understanding through intercultural exchange. US Together’s International Program is the successor of Columbus International Program (CIP) – a program with more than 45 years of history in international collaborative projects and exchange trainings. US Together operates several social enterprises, including Interpretation/Translation services, Voluntourism, and Welcoming City. Funds generated from these enterprises would go towards providing services to the most vulnerable in our communities.
How you are innovating in the nonprofit space? We foster a spirit of innovation in our organization. New ideas do not just come from one person. Everybody, from volunteers and interns to case managers and program coordinators, to management are welcome to share their ideas and everybody’s input is important.
How is your organization making an impact in Columbus? For the last 16 years, our organization has been providing integration services to refugees and immigrants, serving more than 7,000 refugees and 2,000 immigrants. But in addition to providing direct services, we also educated our communities, local government, educators, health care professionals, other social services providers about struggles and successes of people and communities we serve, trying to tell the whole story about contributions and impact of New Americans in our community. By developing resources to provide services to refugees and immigrants, we also helped to build capacity of our communities and organizations to serve the diverse population of Central Ohio. By utilizing our experiences with refugee resettlement and refugee employment programs, we expanded to develop integration and career pathways programs for other populations who might experience barriers to entering workforce, through our new social enterprise, Welcoming City.
What makes your organization thrive? Our amazing team and volunteers devoted to our mission.
As a leader, how do you come up with innovative ideas, and what helps put those ideas into action? Majority of our staff are former refugees and immigrants themselves, who understand refugee and immigrant journey on a very personal level. It is important to listen to our staff, our clients, communities to be attuned to current and evolving needs to be responsive to those needs through new programming. Ideas come from everywhere: people we meet, people we work with; our family, friends, personal experiences; our clients’ stories.
For example, about 4-5 years ago, we understood that we wanted to expand our services to refugees and migrants to where they were (in refugee camps and cities around the world) and help them to be better prepared to deal with their new environment. We did not know exactly how we would accomplish that, but we kept an open mind. When 3 years ago I went to Kenya and Rwanda to meet with both refugees and refugee serving organization there, I saw the need for volunteers to work with refugees. When a year ago Columbus international Program merged with US Together, the first project I asked our new International Department to work on was creating a social enterprise, Voluntourism, taking groups on cultural and volunteer tourism trips to countries that have accepted refugees. Our amazing International Program team and our international Advisory Council worked tirelessly to create volunteer opportunities and organize trips to Greece, Rwanda and Spain. New partnerships and ideas came from those experiences as well, and we are now working on new opportunities and projects.
Give us a snapshot of your career path—what is your background, and what led you to work in the nonprofit sector? I was a teacher prior to coming to the US as a refugee from Ukraine. When I came here, I decided to change my career and studied business. While attending college, I worked part time in a refugee serving organization and taught immigrants in local community college. After moving to Columbus, I started working at Jewish Family Services and have been there for more than 9 years, working as a Director of Immigrant Community Services department.
What is the one thing you are most passionate about? Social justice.
Who inspires you? My family, my family history and people I worked with every day, their courage, their kindness.
How do you stay motivated? What drives you to take things to the next level? When my family of three came to the US, we had three suitcases and a lot of dreams. We were given amazing opportunities in this country and I want to make sure that people that come to this country after us continue to have access to the same opportunities and be treated fairly. Our organization is uniquely suited to help refugees and immigrants not just survive but overcome barriers and succeed. The story of our organization IS the story of refugees and immigrants and we share the same dreams and aspirations of success.
What struggles or adversities have you had to overcome to get to where you are today? Politics, bureaucracy, limited resources.
Why do you think people should care about innovative nonprofits? They impact local communities and, through innovative approaches, bring in new resources and new solutions that affect all of us, directly and indirectly.
As a kid, what did you say you wanted to be when you grew up? a teacher.
What might others be surprised to know about you? I attended Music school for 9 years.
How can others in the Columbus community get involved with your organization? We have intern, volunteer and mentorship opportunities in our organization. You can be a conversation partner for a recent refugee; be a mentor to a refugee or immigrant who came to this country with education and skills and are trying to figure out their career path here; to mentor refugee women who want to start their own business; to be a mentor to a refugee youth who might struggle to adjust to a new school; volunteer to set up apartment for new refugee family; donate basic household supplies; help our organization to fund raise for many services we provide in our community, etc.
If someone were to ask you what the “pulse” of Columbus is, what would you tell them? Opening our hearts and minds.