HOCU | The woman who finds refugees a home in CU


Brigida Dockus

Lisa Wilson stepped up as the director of the East Central Illinois Refugee Center in Champaign after becoming motivated to promote the rights of immigrants and refugees.

By Jacqui Nguyen, Staff Writer

Lisa Wilson, director of the East Central Illinois Refugee Center in Champaign, gave directions to a group of staff members in the lower level of the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District building. She was setting up for a welcome event, and in a few days, the room will be packed with families and individuals from the community who have made the journey to America. 

Growing up in a family of Sicilian immigrants, Wilson was familiar with the process many people face when coming to the United States. Wilson said getting to America is half the battle.

“They’re the lucky ones,” Wilson said. “They found family, friends and eventually jobs and education.” 

She saw how her father not only faced the many struggles immigrants face but also how he was able to get an education despite his situation. He went on to attend the University, and eventually the University of Chicago Law School.

“My father was definitely a huge immigrant success story,” Wilson said. 

    Sign up for our newsletter!

    Wilson followed a similar path as her father, graduating the University with a bachelor’s degree in political science and later, a law degree. Following graduation, Wilson never thought she would end up back in Champaign-Urbana. 

    But in 1997, Wilson moved back to the area.At the time, she was transitioning out of her previous job at a real estate development company while becoming reacquainted with her husband, whom she had previously met during her undergraduate years at the University.

    Following the 2016 election, Wilson became even more motivated to advocate for the rights of immigrants and refugees. She sent postcards and phone calls to elected representatives but saw she could help in an even more tangible way through her work at the Refugee Center.

    “I realized that in 2016 that the odds were being stacked evermore against immigrants and I felt a real need to advocate,” Wilson said. 

     At the time, the center was looking for new leadership, and Wilson willingly interviewed for some positions, eventually becoming the executive director.

    The Refugee Center was first established in 1980 to provide community services to local Vietnamese refugees. Since then, the center has been assisting immigrants and refugees regardless of their country of origin. The center offers translation and interpretation services, public benefits assistance and connections to various other organizations around the community. 

    “We collaborate with other community organizations to work towards having a healthier community and have people in lower-income categories become more self-sustaining and successful,” Wilson said.

    For Wilson and her staff, the most notable experience in recent years has been providing aid to Afghan evacuees who arrived in C-U. When the evacuation happened, American resettlement agencies received a lot of people in a short period of time. With the American immigration process, refugees needed to identify a U.S. tie in order to enter. This was difficult considering the large volume of people coming in. 

    “We had a number of families and individuals who already knew each other from Afghanistan,” Wilson said. 

    The existing Afghan community who had come to the area 5-6 years ago was able to help new clients with translation and cultural orientation to the area. Refugees were taught everything from learning the bus system, shopping for food and managing American money. 

    With the help of individuals and families Wilson and her staff assisted in the past, the Refugee Center resettled 57 Afghan immigrants into the area. 

    “So far, we’re really proud to say that we have everyone in permanent housing, kids are enrolled in school and most adults are working or looking for work,” Wilson said.

    Wilson said she owed the success of the center to her dedicated staff members. 

    “They’ve gone above and beyond in making sure that the needs of the Afghan community were taken care of,” Wilson said.

    Ameera Samad, a volunteer and outreach coordinator at the Refugee Center, is responsible for recruiting volunteers and connecting with various community organizations that could further aid refugees and immigrants in the community. With a background in public health, Samad is passionate about reducing health disparities within communities.

    “A lot of my work is about connecting with individuals and making people feel seen as well as heard,” Samad said. “When you are working and living within a community, you get to interact with them personally, which is very important.” 

    The aid Samad and the rest of the staff at the Refugee Center provides is possible through collaboration.

    “Lisa is really good about making sure that all the staff is heard and all the issues and questions that come from staff members are addressed,” Samad said. “It’s a huge thing that we’re well equipped because we are a community organization and we have to serve the community.”

    Sarah Chitwood, an administrative assistant at the Refugee Center, ensures the organization operates smoothly. With a background in comparative and world literature, Chitwood has language skills that complement to the people the Refugee Center serves. 

    “It’s really important that we meet frequently to address the needs of our clients and find the resources that are available to them,” Chitwood said. “I communicate resources that Lisa becomes aware of to our general staff so they are aware of what is available.”

    The Refugee Center continues to break down a variety of barriers refugees and immigrants face when coming to the Champaign-Urbana area. For Wilson, working with clients has opened her eyes even more to the often overlooked barriers that they face while trying to go about their daily lives. The language barrier is one of the biggest obstacles refugees and immigrants face. 

    “That’s something we’re working with other organizations toward right now is having a language access plan for Champaign County,” Wilson said. “The immigrant population is about 12% now and there are many organizations that offer materials in Spanish but not much else.”


    [email protected]