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Indianapolis nonprofit collects items for refugee families

Chris Vermilion and his daughter, Emma, huddle in the cold of their driveway, where people have brought supplies for refugee families. Chris and his wife, Traci, started the Indiana Refugee Network together.
Chris Vermilion and his daughter, Emma, huddle in the cold of their driveway, where people have brought supplies for refugee families. Chris and his wife, Traci, started the Indiana Refugee Network together.

INDIANAPOLIS — In the front of the Vermilion family’s Washington Township lawn, an orange, green and blue sign sticks out from the ground, with the same phrase written on it in Spanish, English and Arabic.

“No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor,” it read.

When Traci and Chris Vermilion began to notice that basic needs of refugees were not being fulfilled in their community, they decided to take matters into their own hands. They spearheaded Indiana Refugee Network, now an official nonprofit group that provides assistance in the form of guidance and supplies to refugee families in the greater Indianapolis area.

IRN had its second official supply drive Saturday morning, using the power of social media to create an event page and draw in volunteers and donors. They’d had one previous call for items, when they put the word out that they needed coats and clothing, but this was the first time they’d set aside a specific time for donors to bring in items.

The drive took place at the Vermilions’ house, where black boxes and shelves were set all along their driveway for different categories of needs. People brought toilet paper, paper towels, napkins, laundry detergent, fabric softener, dryer sheets, dish detergent, underwear, socks, feminine products, towels, soap, shampoo and conditioner and other toiletries. Traci Vermilion said they ended up collecting a couple thousand items total and were able to completely fill their brand new 10-by-30 storage unit that they’ve only had for a few weeks.

She said she first got the idea to begin reaching out to refugee families during her job as an English as a Second Language teacher. She’d be talking to her students and discover they had needs more pressing than learning in school.

“I have a heart for refugees,” Traci Vermilion said. “It’s hard to get them to learn when they have other immediate needs at home.”

For a year and a half, the Vermilions were just running the unofficial organization on their own, she said. When they realized their community’s needs were too big, they decided to make a Facebook group to recruit more help.

In 2016, they got incorporated, and got their official nonprofit status in March of that year. They used to gather supplies sporadically, or would sometimes come home to find random items left on their porch. Thanks to the Facebook event, they were able to reach out to people they wouldn’t have known otherwise. Now, Traci Vermilion said, they service anywhere from 20 to 30 families. A majority of people they help include Syrian, Eastern African and Burmese refugees, though the IRN certainly isn’t limited to those groups.

Something that simply started as the Vermilions paying for students’ Kings Island choir field trips when they couldn’t afford them, or gathering coats for families that needed them, has grown into an organized effort.

“It’s been really interesting looking at what Facebook can do,” Chris Vermilion said.

He said he’s been impressed with the connections that can be made through the site. Though this is the first time IRN has done an official Facebook event page, it was shared so many times that it was seen by about 21,000 people, he said.

On Saturday, they put out sign up sheets for new donors that stopped by and might be interested in sticking around to help with future events.

It’s been neat to see how Hoosiers still have a heart to help others, he said.

He said he thinks a lot of people don’t understand the difference between undocumented immigrants, legal immigrants and refugees, but they are all very different groups of people.

Refugees didn’t choose to come here, Chris Vermilion said. They were placed.

“If we were struggling, I’d want someone to help my own children,” Chris Vermilion said. “That’s the way I look at things.”

Chris and Traci Vermilion’s 13-year-old daughter, Emma Vermilion, was flitting around and helping out on the chilly Saturday morning. Their 10-year-old son, Carter, came back from a sleepover later on during the event.

Their kids have gotten close with some of the refugee families, despite barriers to these friendships, Traci Vermilion said.

“It doesn’t matter the language, it doesn’t matter the culture,” she said. “They get right in there and play with them.”

One family the Vermilions have been working closely with since the beginning of the IRN’s start are the Batmans, a Syrian refugee family.

The Batman family fled Homs, Syria and settled in America in 2015 and the IDS reported on their lives in 2015 and again after President Trump’s refugee ban.

Rakan Batman had been her student, Traci Vermilion said. When she first knew him, he used to only say, “My name is Rakan. I don’t speak English,” she said.

Now, he came with his mom and another refugee family, the Habous, to the IRN event, and was able to act as a quasi translator.

Some, such as Diana and Kevin Pannell, just started volunteering with the IRN. The refugee issue wasn’t really on their radar until the political rhetoric surrounding it began to shift in a very negative direction.

Others, such as Sally Roscetti, have been involved for longer. Roscetti’s daughter Katy Roscetti and Emma Vermilion have been friends since they were in first grade, so the mom heard about IRN in its earlier stages and helped spread the word.

They don’t want to reinvent the wheel, Traci Vermilion said. They won’t step on the toes of the many organizations who already have successful back-to-school drives or English-speaking classes.

But the IRN is growing, and Traci Vermilion said she hopes it continues to expand.

“We need to be servicing hundreds,” she said. “We just haven’t had the resources to do it right now.”

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