A refugee is defined by the United Nations as someone who has left their country of origin because of a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.
“It doesn’t make sense how badly humans can sometimes treat one another,” says Bahram Maghsoudi, a senior managing consultant for IBM in Germany. “Yet, at the same time, there are so many others ready and willing to help those who have been mistreated.”
It’s hard to deny how fearful or terrifying circumstances must be for people to flee their homes and countries. The stories are numerous and often the brutality inflicted by the crudest of weapons—rocks or machetes—is horrific. While not all refugee stories are gruesome, even mental anguish, such as political oppression, can be as punishing as physical abuse. There are more than 40 million displaced people in the world; 12 million or so are considered refugees, according to the International Rescue Committee.
Many nations and governments have a process to accept refugees into their countries, giving them a place of safety and an opportunity to contribute to a generally welcoming society. Nonetheless, the struggle for many refugees does not end when they reach the relative safety of a friendly country—healthcare, employment, education, language and cultural differences are among the next hurdles they face.
In 2010, Bahram, looking for a volunteer project during his assignment with IBM in the United States, discovered an organization in New Haven, Connecticut, called Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS)—which every year provides resettlement services to approximately 200 refugees in the New Haven area.
“After I met with IRIS’ deputy director, we realized I could help with their IT needs, as well as use my consulting and language skills to assist with a health initiative they were starting with Yale New Haven Hospital,” says Bahram. “So I started what was to become a nearly fulltime volunteer partnership with IRIS.”
Language differences are a common challenge for refugees in a new country. Bahram’s multicultural background gave him valuable skills—he speaks German, English, French, Farsi and some Arabic. “When I first came to the IRIS office to see how I could help,” says Bahram, “I instantly heard three familiar languages in the hallway—Farsi, French and Tajik, which is similar to Farsi. That was awesome, and I felt at home immediately.”
Currently, over half of IRIS’ refugee clients come from Iraq, while others come from Afghanistan, Congo, Cuba, Ethiopia, Iran, Somalia, Sudan, and other countries.
The language barrier is a big concern where clarity is of utmost importance—in the area of healthcare. The Primary Care Center at Yale New Haven Hospital recognized the growing need in their community and together with IRIS, and others, partnered to create the Refugee Health Clinic to help new arrivals in Connecticut transition into the local medical system.
Bahram was a natural to help with the Refugee Health Care program given his language and management consulting skills. He documented the program to make sure it was set-up for the long term, drafting a blueprint describing the "ideal way" a refugee case should be managed, containing all the steps from case assignment through the end date of IRIS services to a client—usually five years after arrival.
Now instead of dozens of unwritten rules or documents across the organization, IRIS has one central record for all process-related questions and can clearly show external stakeholders what services are being provided.
Bahram says that “A typical day for me involved helping refugees navigate the local healthcare system, working closely with IRIS staff to accompany refugees to medical appointments, explain the refugees' needs to doctors, and organize specialty appointments and prescriptions.” Today he says 100% of IRIS’ clients see a doctor within the required timeframe.
IRIS also did not have a dedicated IT resource, and Bahram stepped in to help them develop a full IT strategy. “I worked with the contracted IT provider and we sat together and solved several overdue issues, including assessing server capacity, and analyzing a better approach to the separate databases IRIS had for cases, volunteers, donors and bookkeeping.”
He helped rollout a more cost effective means of backing up data, scheduled regular updates to virus and malware software, and aligned the IRIS team’s email and calendar versions.
Bahram has used IBM’s On Demand Community since 2010 to track his 1,200 hours of volunteer time with IRIS. On Demand Community is IBM’s global community that combines the skills of over 200,000 IBM employee and retiree volunteers with the power of access to IBM technology and training.
In the fall of 2011, he will begin an assignment in Kenya with IBM’s Corporate Service Corps (CSC), which enables select IBM employees to develop additional leadership skills through projects in growth markets working on economic, social and environmental challenges.
“The greatest satisfaction always involves the kids who, coming from camps and shelters all around the world finally make it to school,” says Bahram of his time at IRIS. “They get to see good doctors, make friends, learn English, play football and do everything some American kids may take for granted. To see them smile is the most rewarding gift I ever could get.”
IBM is marking its centennial year with a worldwide celebration of volunteer service.
Throughout 2011, IBM invites everyone to join our global community of employees, retirees, families and friends as we support the communities where we work, live and learn together.