RefugeeConnect’s Robyn Lamont: Thriving, Faith, Motherhood, and More
Robyn Lamont and I sat down in her place of worship: Isaac M. Wise Temple on Plum Street – a gorgeous, meditative synagogue frequently referred to as the Plum Street Temple. It’s a building I pass every day on my way to work, and I’m happy to now know the beauty that lies within.
Our conversation felt like a whisper in such a grand place. We talked about the organization Robyn runs, RefugeeConnect, and her journey to becoming a Cincinnatian. Cincinnati is home to many different kinds of people, and Robyn is an integral part in making our refugee population feel valued and welcome here.
Starting off, tell me about yourself.
My name is Robyn Lamont. I moved to Cincinnati originally in 2010 and worked at the Museum Center. I left Cincinnati briefly, then came back in 2014, and I don’t think I’ll ever leave. I really love it here. I am a new mother; I’m a social worker by background and an anthropologist. I went to Miami of Ohio for undergrad and Ohio State University for graduate school. And I’m now the executive director of RefugeeConnect, a local nonprofit that welcomes people who came as refugees and are fleeing persecution or natural disaster and helps them to find home and pursue life, liberty, and happiness.
Can you tell us more about RefugeeConnect? How did you get involved with the organization?
RefugeeConnect is a nonprofit incubation of the Junior League of Cincinnati. Every 3 to 10 years, the Junior League – which is a women’s organization promoting volunteerism of women and leadership opportunities in community service – does a needs assessment for women and children. They found that after the 90 days of assistance that a refugee receives, people had very limited resources available and were basically on their own to navigate life. Everything could be new. Some people come from Western places, where perhaps it isn’t quite so new. But for many people, it’s a total culture shock. The Junior League decided to coordinate services, so I joined RefugeeConnect as the program director in 2015 when it was a department of the Junior League. Before that, it was led by volunteer women. Very inspiring.
As a woman, we shouldn’t have to choose between pieces of our life and, at times, I’ve felt like I have.
The goal was to launch it, to figure out if it was going to join an existing nonprofit or become a nonprofit on its own. How could it grow and thrive as an organization to then support people so that people can grow and thrive and really make Cincinnati home? Its values are honoring that the people who come here have experiences and have their own goals. So when we’re working with folks, it’s really about finding what they’re passionate about and helping them get connected and feeling like they can heal from whatever horrific circumstances they fled from.
It seems like an organization that also lets people know that they have value here, too. As a side note, it’s very cool that your son is part of this interview.
Yes! As a woman, we shouldn’t have to choose between pieces of our life and, at times, I’ve felt like I have. It’s been a journey to figure out how to do that and to find other women as mentors to figure out how I can say “yes” to being a mother and be the head of an organization. I sort of joked to folks that I had to wait for the RefugeeConnect baby to be ready for me to have a child. But also, he is a descendent of a refugee. My husband’s family fled the Holocaust. His grandfather was on the boat that went to Cuba and got turned back, and a good amount of people were killed on that boat. Thankfully, he and his immediate family did survive. When I look at my son, I think about how he wouldn’t be here, my husband wouldn’t be here, if it wasn’t for the refugee program.
That also has to do with my identity. I identify as Jewish – that’s why we’re in the Plum Street Temple. I was married here and am very active in the Jewish community through my volunteerism. My Jewish identity promotes coming together as a community for all, and how do we build bridges and how do we celebrate that we are a rich community of people with many different faiths and different backgrounds? I don’t always talk about my own identity as a Jew. But it is central to who I am. It guides my ethical decision-making and it helps me find peace and comfort in a world that’s continually challenging.
The Jewish community has really supported RefugeeConnect, which was the recipient of the Jewish Innovation Fund. It was a group of donors, a giving circle. RefugeeConnect is creating a great mentorship program for adults. And it goes back to the Junior League’s vision of building better communities. Having that at the core, where RefugeeConnect’s roots were in volunteerism, allows us to really think about, “How can we do things in a way that is allowing volunteers to have an impact?” And so it’s volunteers at the center.
This is going to be a tall order, but if you had to describe the organization in one word, what would that be?
I would say, “thrive.” I think that working with people who are survivors – by definition, refugees are survivors… The issue that was happening before RefugeeConnect was that sometimes people were able to thrive, but we want to accelerate that journey. We wanted people to be able to thrive more quickly. I think surviving means holistically being able to find yourself in the chaos of a life that maybe you didn’t expect and no one would wish on anyone. “Thrive” encompasses not only the individual or family unit of refugees, but also that the greater community wants Cincinnati to thrive.
That really connects with your people-centric approach, too. I came across a few articles about the World Refugee Day Cup Tournament, and I’d love to hear more.
It’s one of our signature events and it’ll be on June 22. It’s in honor of World Refugee Day, which is always June 20. It’s going to be at Xavier University this year, for the third year in a row. When Xavier offered the space, we thought, “What a perfect fit for the mission of the university and our mission.” All of our refugee empowerment meetings are held at Xavier, and they’re a sponsor of our organization – the Brueggeman Center for Dialogue, specifically.
I decided in that moment to think about the me piece first. And I think that’s hard to do sometimes.
The soccer tournament was created because soccer is a language across backgrounds and it brings people together. Last year, there were 34 countries represented. Some teams were just one country, and other teams were a mix of backgrounds. Kroger has been a great sponsor. There’s always food and a resource fair, different activities for people to get to know resources in the community. The Public Library has been instrumental in the planning, as well as the Y.M.C.A.; the American Red Cross holds all our planning meetings. When we first started the tournament, we co-planned it together. Miami University Middletown Campus has always provided the flags, which are proudly displayed in our parade of nations. It’s just a day of celebration.
It sounds like a really awesome event. Is there anything someone reading this can do to help?
The greater community could come out to the event and support the players. We could really make it this celebratory day that would show that we’re supportive. That we’re happy that you’re here. That we are a welcoming place. There are many different ways to volunteer before the event and the day of. We’re also looking for sponsorship, because we provide shirts for the teams and food for the day and really want to make it an experience that’s free of charge for anyone. It’s open to the public, and there’s activities for kids. ArtWorks has been involved, as well as many other partners.
Switching topics a little bit, we’ve touched on why the Plum Street Temple has a lot of significance for you. I know you were married here and this is your place of worship; is there anything else that makes this place special?
When I think about my own identity as a Jew and the lives and physical spaces that were destroyed during the Holocaust, I think about how there were a lot of places like this that aren’t here anymore. To come in here, it sort of takes you to a different place and for me, it allows my brain to turn off all the other noise that’s blowing around.
It’s absolutely gorgeous here.
Additionally, I identify as Jewish, and my extended family is many different religions, and so I think about how supported I am by them to be Jewish and to respect that they’re Christian and Muslim and these other faiths. I think being here is a step to being more open with who I am. That as I get older, as I become a mother, I need to own my identity more. There are many amazing spaces that refugees have created here, and it would be hard to pick just one. So when you asked for a space, I decided in that moment to think about the me piece first. And I think that’s hard to do sometimes.
With that said, do you want to circle back around to the first question of “Tell me about yourself”?
I’m a proud Cincinnatian. I’m a mother. I run a nonprofit and am the co-founder of it. I’m a lifelong learner and just feel so lucky to have found Cincinnati, not being from here, and to have the opportunity to grow an organization and to get involved in volunteerism, to be engaged at a level that I don’t know is available in other cities. If anyone asked me for a place where someone who’s a young adult could really establish roots and figure out where they can make an impact, I would say this is the place.
As we wrap up, tell me about an influential woman in your life.
The answer is actually the two women who have been the most influential: my sisters. I’m in the middle; I have an older sister and a younger sister, and when I think about who I am today and how I feel supported and how I find myself, it’s really with them. They both exemplify openness and respect and support that is never ending. They’ve taught me so much about who I can become and how to overcome struggles in life and how to find meaning and make tough decisions. They’re influential because they don’t follow the norm. They’re both pursuing their lives and their careers in ways that are inspiring and that are not always traditional. I think that we need women who can be there for you and who can listen and be present, and that’s what my sisters have done.