Leslie Koons tossed a container of oatmeal across two tables in a classroom on the second floor of New Haven’s Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services building on Nicoll Street Thursday.
“How many of you have eaten oatmeal before?” she asked the audience.
IRIS staffers then handed out cups of oatmeal to the people dispersed around the room. For many, this was their first taste of what Koons called a “cheap, super healthy” meal.
Along with IRIS social worker Amanda Bisset, Koons — IRIS health and wellness programming coordinator — led over 30 refugees in a wellness class geared toward safely navigating a Connecticut winter. For many of these refugees — who hail from countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria — this winter is their first in the United States. The winter health and safety class is part of a monthly wellness series that Bisset leads. The attendance for Thursday’s class was nearly double the number of attendees that the series usually draws, Bisset said.
The refugees discussed nutrition, exercise and how to avoid catching colds and the flu while sampling the oatmeal and snacking on bananas and tangerines. At one point, IRIS Executive Director Chris George made a guest appearance, demonstrating how to walk safely on ice and snow. He emphasized keeping the knees slightly bent and the arms out for balance.
“We’ve had many IRIS clients fall and break bones because they don’t know how to walk on the snow,” Bisset warned the class.
Bisset told the News that injuries over the past few years led IRIS to offer a comprehensive winter education class for the refugees it serves.
Fatuma Lkamba, a refugee from the Congo, said the class was helpful because she now feels prepared to dress herself and her children in cold weather.
Part of Bisset’s role at the organization includes creating programs that allow IRIS clients to feel empowered and holistically healthy. That approach means focusing on the clients’ mental and physical health and working to reduce any stressors in their lives, Bisset said. Her monthly wellness class series is only one of IRIS’s wellness programs for refugees.
“We really focus on where our clients are at, where their basic needs are and helping them adjust to life in the U.S.,” she said.
Other programs Bisset runs include a weekly sewing skills group for refugee women, a mother-and-child English class and a monthly cultural orientation class. Upcoming projects include a collaboration with the New Haven Land Trust to provide a community garden for the refugees, which would incorporate concepts of healthy eating and healthy living, Bisset said.
Bisset said the English class contributes to overall health and wellness, adding that the women in the program learn to ride the bus or go to the store — tasks they might not have felt comfortable with or have done alone in their original countries. The women thus learn to feel more independent through the programs, Bisset said.
In addition to offering classes, IRIS resettles roughly 200 refugees in New Haven each year. In November, the organization made national news headlines when it welcomed a Syrian refugee family that was turned down by Indiana Gov. Mike Pence.
Ward 2 Co-Chair Jane Kinity, who translated between Swahili and English during the class, said she began volunteering at IRIS after she received help from the agency about 16 years ago. Originally from Kenya, Kinity said the agency had helped her with housing, food stamps, identification and her job hunt.
After the class, IRIS staffers laid out sneakers on the tables for the clients to take home. Staffers encouraged the clients to wear the shoes to this weekend’s Run for Refugees 5K, which will start and end at Wilbur Cross High School.
Founded in 1982, IRIS is an affiliate of Church World Ministries and Episcopal Migration Ministries.