Staff Highlight: Alex Alfonso

This summer Community Refugee and Immigration Services (CRIS) is partnering with the Columbus Foundation’s Summer Fellows program.  Launched in 2010 the Summer Fellows Program provides undergraduates and recent college graduates with the opportunity to intern with central Ohio non-profit organizations.

Columbus Foundation Summer Fellow Alex Alfonso

Columbus Foundation Summer Fellow Alex Alfonso


Alex Alfonso is our Columbus Foundation Summer Fellow.  He is working with us for ten weeks this summer in the refugee resettlement program helping to prepare for and welcome newly arriving refugees to Columbus.  Last summer Alex volunteered at CRIS teaching basic employability classes and helping employment counselors.  He so enjoyed assisting refugees in their initial transition that he sought out a fellowship to return full-time this summer.

Alex’s role includes picking up new arrivals from the airport, putting together home supply kits, and taking trips with clients to the Furniture Bank of Central Ohio so that they can furnish their new homes.  He also teaches cultural orientation classes for newly arrived refugees to help with the process of integrating into our community.

Please check out his weekly posts for the Columbus Foundation blog ( about his experiences at CRIS.  At the culmination of his summer project in August, Alex will present his experiences to the Columbus Foundation staff.

Columbus Foundation Summer Fellows 2014

Columbus Foundation Summer Fellows 2014


When asked what he contemplates for the future, Alex expresses that he hopes to continue to work in the non-profit sector, specifically with refugee resettlement non-profits like CRIS, both here in the United States and abroad.  After delving into the non-profit world he hopes to transition to teaching, perhaps at a small liberal arts college much like his alma mater, DePauw University.  We at CRIS are so pleased to have his positive attitude and dedication as part of our team this summer..

Ramadan in Columbus, Ohio

The image of lanterns is traditionally associated with Ramadan.

The image of lanterns is traditionally associated with Ramadan.

Every year Muslims around the world fast, abstaining from water and food, from sunrise to sunset during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar called Ramadan.  This year Ramadan will last from June 28 to approximately July 28.  Muslims mark the end of Ramadan with a day of celebration called Eid al Fitr.  Every day, once the sun has set, Muslims may drink and eat, breaking a fast that can last up to 16 hours in the height of summer here in Ohio.  They often break their daily fast with dates, the food the prophet Muhammad, Peace Be upon Him, is thought to have eaten to break his fast.

For many Muslims, Ramadan is a month of spiritual discipline in which they train their souls in self-restraint and mindfulness and refocus their attention upon God.  During Ramadan Muslims refrain not just from food and drink but also from bad thoughts, actions, and words.

Special circumstances can exempt a Muslim from fasting.  The elderly, sick, those on a journey, or women who are pregnant, nursing, or menstruating may break their fast and make up the lost days when they are healthy and able.

Sarah Taylor, communications intern for CRIS, sat down with two of CRIS’s Muslim staff members to ask them some questions about the month of fasting before them.


Mohamed: A twenty year-old Somali born in Toronto, Canada

Why do you fast for Ramadan?

“It’s part of the five pillars of Islam.  In order to be a practicing Muslim you need to have all the pillars in line and one of those is the month of Ramadan.”


What is the purpose of Ramadan?

“Ramadan is the “month that The Holy Quran was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessing be upon him.  It is a cleansing month after the 11 months preceding in which you might have been sinning and not repenting. Ramadan gives us an opportunity to clean all the bad sins off and gives us a fresh start. After this month you should be a better person who is more closer to God.

Ramadan makes me be appreciative  of all  bounties that I have been blessed with.  I realize these blessings more and in a different light when I’m fasting.”


What is the hardest thing about Ramadan?

“I think the hardest thing is different for each individual.  For me, the lack of energy is the hardest.”

“Self-control is also hard.  If someone gets you mad, you cannot get angry in return.  This is particularly hard if someone is pushing your buttons. You realize a lot of new things about yourself during Ramadan.”


How is it different to experience Ramadan in the US vs. to experience Ramadan in a majority Muslim country?

“Totally different.  During Ramadan here [in the US] you work, go home, are tired, and eat.  The fasting takes a larger role.  When you are abroad you are so busy during the night that you sleep until 3 pm.  Since you start your day around 3 pm, you don’t feel the fast.  But you still must control your emotions.

“Fasting overseas is more family-driven, you break your fast with your whole family.  It’s a nice feeling, sitting around and reminiscing.  One year we missed prayer because we were caught up laughing about old stories,” he remembers with a laugh and a shake of his head.


Next I sat down with Fardows, a mother of three who is originally from Somalia and has lived in the US for 17 years.

Fardows, what is the hardest thing about Ramadan for you?

“The beginning first 5 days – cutting off all the caffeine you drink, your body struggles to get used to the lack of water, food, and caffeine.  Sometimes you can just forget you’re fasting and drink some water.  That day still counts as a day of fasting because you forgot.  If you remember while drinking that you are fasting, then you cannot swallow that mouthful of water.”


How is it different to experience Ramadan in the US vs. experiencing Ramadan in a majority Muslim country?

“In Muslim countries, everyone is fasting, so it’s wonderful.  We pray more and longer than we normally do with a type of prayer called taraweh.  When your neighbors are fasting, you go to Mosque together.” She reminisces with a smile on her face.

“You can hear the call to prayer and wake up to it in the morning.  In the US we have none of that.  Ramadan is not as exciting.  You also have to work throughout the month, instead of being able to take off the whole month of Ramadan to focus on the Quran and fasting.”


These men break their fast collectively.

These men break their fast collectively.

**For those new to learning about Islam, here is a bit of general information about it.

What is Islam?

Islam is a faith of the Abrahamic tradition – sharing texts like the Old Testament with Christians and Jews, also called the “People of the Book.”

One very important distinction:

Islam is the religion.

A Muslim is a devotee of Islam, just as a Christian is a devotee of Christianity.


The foundational belief and tenants of Islam are summarized in the “Five Pillars.”  In no particular order, I have listed them below:

Faith (iman)- Declaration Of Faith

Prayer (salah) – Praying Five daily Prayers

Charity (zakah) – Giving a portion of yearly wealth to the needy or less fortune

Fasting (sawm) – Fasting The month of Ramadan

Pilgrimage (hajj) – Occurs in the 12th month of the Islamic lunar calendar


What is the “call to prayer?”

The “call to prayer,” also called Adhan in Arabic and azan in Somali, is an announcement projected from loudspeakers outside mosques five times per day.  It often invokes the Shahada, the Muslim statement of faith, and calls the faithful to pray.  The Shahada states: “There is no God worthy of worship but God and Muhammad is last his messenger.”

**Youtube link to the call to prayer:


To learn more about Ramadan, follow the links below:

o   Time Magazine’s Thirty Days of Ramadan blog:

o   Introduction to Ramadan:

o   An interesting article by a new convert to Islam experiencing Ramadan for the first time:

CRIS’ Staff Bakes Kounafa

An article by Sarah Taylor, Summer Communications Intern

For an all-staff lunch in June, everyone brought their favorite foods from around the world.  Alongside Nepali momos (potstickers), Ethiopian injera, and American fried chicken was my new favorite dessert, kounafa.

Kunafa Recipe

Source for this photo here.

Kounafa is a Middle Eastern dessert traditionally eaten during the month of Ramadan, but feel free to enjoy this sticky and sweet dessert any time of the year.  The savory dough and nuts pair particularly well with the sweetness of the syrup and the raisins.  I recommend serving it with tea at the end of a meal, preferably a meal spent with lots of family and friends.

Staff member, Georgina, was gracious enough to share with me her recipe for this delectable dessert.  Please see her recipe below:

Makes:  more than 30 squares

Prep time:  20 minutes, Bake time: 30 minutes, Total time: 50 minutes


For the dough base

  • 1 box of Kataifi (shredded dough), which you can find in Arab grocery stores and bakeries
  • 2 sticks of melted butter
  • 1/2 cup of powdered sugar
  • Crushed nuts, such as walnuts, almonds, and cashews, as desired
  • **Optional: ½ cup of golden raisins

For the syrup:

  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup sugar
  • ½ tablespoon lemon
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
  • ***Many recipes call for 1 tbsp of rosewater instead of lemon and vanilla


  1. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.
  2. In a large bowl take half of the shredded dough and break it into small pieces with your fingers.  Mix the dough with half of the powdered sugar, then add 1 stick butter and mix the ingredients together well.
  3. In a oven tray ( 11*15 inch) spread the mixed dough in a layer on the bottom of the pan, pressing it with your hand to make it even.
  4. Spread the crushed nuts and the golden raisins.
  5. Mix the remaining dough with the second stick of butter and ½ cup powdered sugar.
  6. Press this dough on top of the raisins and crushed nuts in an even layer.
  7. Once your oven is preheated, bake the layers of dough for about 30 minutes or until the dish becomes a gold-colored.
  8. While the kounafa bakes, mix the water, sugar, lemon and vanilla in a saucepan to make the syrup.  Bring the ingredients to a boil and continue to heat them on high heat until the syrup is a consistency somewhere between water and pancake syrup.  (I made the mistake of making it too thick, and the syrup would not spread.  Make sure the syrup is more watery than pancake syrup!)
  9. Allow the syrup to cool completely, then spread it on top of the baked kounafa.  The syrup should be thin enough to soak through the dessert, but not too thick that it stays on top and not too thin to pool at the bottom and soak the dough.
  10. Allow the dessert to cool completely before you cut it into squares.

Below is a picture of two squares of my kounafa, looking a little worse for the wear, but delicious all the same!


URGENT: You can stop cuts to refugee services!

CWS advocacy


As all of our concern grows for the children fleeing violence in Central America and seeking safety in the United States, we’ve just learned that the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) plans to reprogram $94 million from refugee services to meet the needs of these children.

Without additional funding, vital programs that assist refugees will lose funding. Refugee services are already underfunded, and these cuts would have devastating consequences for refugees and the communities that welcome them.

You can make a difference for them by urging our Members of Congress to ensure that the Office of Refugee Resettlement receives an additional $200 million to meet the needs of both refugees and unaccompanied children, for a total of $3.367 billion in FY 15.

Please call your Members of Congress today and urge them to substantially increase funding so that ORR can meet the needs of both unaccompanied children and refugees.

Here are the direct phone numbers and twitter handles for your elected officials:

Rep. Tiberi - (202) 225-5355

Sen. Brown - (202) 224-2315

Sen. Portman - (202) 224-3353

Tell them:

  • I’m your constituent from [city, state] and I care about refugees.
  • I urge you to increase funding for the Office of Refugee Resettlement by $200 million in FY14 so they can meet the needs of both unaccompanied children and refugees. The office has a shortfall and will have to cut services for refugees if Congress does not increase its funding.
  • The U.S. must show leadership in helping these children while maintaining our commitment to refugee resettlement. I urge you to ensure that ORR receives a total of $3.367 billion in Fiscal Year 2015.

Click here to find out more.

Thanks for taking the time today to speak out on this important issue.

CRIS is NASW’s Agency of the Year!

Article by summer communications intern, Sarah Taylor

Our new award, courtesy of NASW

Our new award, courtesy of NASW

The Columbus chapter of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) has just named Community Refugee and Immigration Services its Agency of the Year!  This is very exciting and humbling news for us.  We hope to be able to continue to serve the Columbus refugee community with the same passion and dedication for years to come.

For more information about the NASW and our award, follow this link:

An Outing among the Roses


Nepali refugees with CRIS staffer, Sarah Miller

An article by Sarah Taylor, summer communications intern with CRIS

On a sunny afternoon in June, CRIS’s health caseworker for its new Refugee Health and Wellness Program, Sarah Miller, and a group of elderly Nepali-Bhutanese women explored Clintonville’s Park of Roses. With the bright summer sunshine streaming through the trees, the women strolled, laughed, and sang their favorite songs together.


According to Sarah the program works to “meet the health and wellness needs of newly arriving refugees in the Central Ohio area and assist in their successful adjustment and integration into the local community. We provide mental health screenings and referrals to services, alternative wellness activities such as dance and yoga, and outreach and advocacy with service providers.”

“Refugee clients are often not familiar or comfortable with Western approaches to addressing mental health such as therapy and counseling, so we have found it more effective to address these needs through different types of wellness activities. This has included yoga classes, music, community adjustment support groups, and outings such as our recent trip to Park of Roses. These activities give clients the chance to connect with themselves and each other, explore their local community, and have fun, all of which have been demonstrated both through research and reports from our clients to reduce feelings of stress, anxiety, and isolation that many refugees (especially seniors) often feel during the initial stages of resettlement.”


A climb up the wrought iron gazebo brought more dancing and singing for the whole park to see. The women wore their vibrant saris and best jewelry for the event, and they particularly enjoyed their time spent meandering through the trees in the adjoining forest, foraging for leaves, skipping rocks, and leaping across fallen tree trunks. One woman, Kileshshwari, informed me that the leaves would make for delicious curry.


Particularly exciting was the discovery of the deep purple, edible berries growing on mulberry trees beside the stream. The women ate all the berries they could reach before walking back toward the CRIS van and heading home.


World Refugee Day Celebration 2014

Please join Community Refugee and Immigration Services (CRIS) for our annual celebration of World Refugee Day on Saturday June 28th. This year’s festivities will include international food, dance and music from 12:30 pm – 3:30 pm at the Columbus Humanities Arts and Technology Academy (1333 Morse Road, Columbus, OH 43229).

Arts and crafts from last year's celebration

Arts and crafts from last year’s celebration

Admission to the event is free, so bring your friends and family to celebrate the wide-ranging diversity of Columbus’ refugee community, which includes people from Iraq, Bhutan, Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Burma, Cuba, and other nations.

Columbus is just one of many cities around the world that celebrates World Refugee Day. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN refugee agency, established this annual day of recognition to bring awareness to the plight of the 43.7 million refugees and internally displaced peoples worldwide. Come celebrate all those who have made Central Ohio their new home.

Traditional Dancing

We look forward to seeing you at 12:30 pm on June 28th. If you have any questions or would be interested in contributing your culinary, artistic, storytelling or volunteering talents for the event, please to contact CRIS at