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Refugee Disaster Management Plan Project

Faculty lead: Rebecca Morgenstern Brenner

Lecturer, Cornell Institute for Public Affairs (CIPA)

The City of Buffalo’s refugee cohort represents approximately 100 different languages, which causes unique communication challenges. The refugee population in Buffalo is connected through case workers at different nonprofit agencies that have a role managing refugees for resettlement in the United States. These resettlement agencies do not have a comprehensive disaster management plan and also have limited time and resources; after a few months the refugees have little support outside their own social networks. Most of the refugees have limited literacy skills and limited comprehension of English.

The goal of this project is to better understand what disaster communication information refugees understand and how to better inform this cohort to minimize risk. This work is a collaborative effort between Rebecca Morgenstern Brenner, faculty at Cornell Institute for Public Affairs (CIPA), with one of these resettlement agencies, Jewish Family Services of Buffalo and Erie County (JFS). There are several local resettlement agencies and they meet quarterly as a board along with other community leaders and liaisons. The plan is to engage this broader board so they will all invest in their disaster communication plan and be architects of it. Although this project starts in Buffalo, this is a challenge other refugee resettlement cities face nationwide, and there is an opportunity to connect through JFS as a national organization to other communities.

Under Rebecca’s direction, a CIPA graduate student consulting team in spring 2017 conducted a review of best practices for disaster management plans as well as engagement with community leaders and liaisons. During spring 2018, another CIPA graduate student consulting team built a survey that looks at how disaster emergencies are communicated in Buffalo. The survey piloted in spring 2018 with a full launch in summer 2018. One member of the spring 2018 consulting team, second year CIPA fellow Katelyn Palumbo, has continued to work with JFS through a summer internship to manage the survey administration in Buffalo. As of September 2018, approximately 300 surveys had been collected.

The long-term goal is for a modified version of this survey run in other cities in New York State and nationally, then develop communication strategies and conduct focus groups to vet those strategies. In the short term, the goal is to make recommendations for conveying disaster information locally to this cohort. The broader goal is to develop a system for any city to better communicate emergency and disaster notification for all persons regardless of literacy, language, or status.

The spring 2017 CIPA graduate student consulting team included Amal Aun, Yixin Zhang, Tianyue Xu, and Egiimaa Tsolmonbaatar. The spring 2018 team included Katelyn Palumbo, Xavier Campbell, and Bilu Guan.