Banking for refugees and paving a pathway to success
A community of refugees in Des Moines is navigating new financial territory with the help of a Wells Fargo teller who is one of their own.
On Friday afternoons and Saturday mornings, the line to meet with one particular teller at the Beaverdale store in Des Moines, Iowa, can nearly stretch out the door. Hundreds at a time come just to bank with teller Htee Say, a refugee from Burma who speaks Burmese, Karen, Thai, and English.
According to customer Iris Thay, most important is that Say understands her financial needs, customs, and culture — in addition to speaking her language. Iris, a Karen Burmese refugee, comes from an ethnic group that has largely fled Burma, also known as Myanmar, to avoid ongoing violence and conflict.
“Htee was in the same refugee camp as me in Thailand,” says Iris. “Because she works at Wells Fargo, it’s more easy for people from Burma to visit the bank. Most of my people don’t speak English, so it’s much easier for us to communicate on our own with Htee at the bank.”
Htee has never set foot in Burma, where her parents were born. Instead, she remembers home as a squalid refugee camp in northern Thailand, her birthplace.
“I know how they feel,” says Htee. “When we first came here, we didn’t know English and would have to find someone to help us. Now, I know English better, so I have to help and I like helping them.”
A helping hand
Htee landed at Wells Fargo with help from Ty Dunker, a volunteer tutor for refugee children at his church, Zion Lutheran. Ty, who leads an Infrastructure Services team at Wells Fargo, has done far more for the local refugee community than act as their tutor. He’s also helped them get jobs, change batteries in their smoke detectors, celebrate birthdays, obtain driver’s licenses, and pursue educational opportunities.
“Many refugee families have been in the U.S. for years, but they struggle to do many of the things natives might consider easy,” says Ty. “They are strong and proud, and it’s hard to trust someone new and ask for help. It’s an honor that they trust me.”
Htee says, “Ty helps a lot of refugee kids and our families. He helped my dad renew his driver’s license; he helps with homework, coaches soccer, and does everything. He has a very kind heart.”
Ty recalls being invited to a prayer ceremony at Htee’s family home and realizing that he was the only non-refugee in attendance. When he asked why that was, she answered, “You’re the first American friend we’ve ever had.”
After helping several Karen teens get jobs, he also helped them open their first bank accounts at their parents’ banks, most of which were not at Wells Fargo. Eventually, he saw a need in this unique group of customers for specialized services.
“I thought if the refugees had a teller at the bank who spoke their language, that would be a tremendous help,” says Ty, who approached Store Manager Jeramy Bethards about the idea.
Jeramy says, “We want to make sure that we develop personal connections with all of our customers. We actively recruit team members who mirror our community and customers to help them succeed. Htee was a perfect fit to do just that for customers from Burma.”
Connecting through language
Before applying for the teller job, Htee was already familiar with the Beaverdale store and one team member. She often volunteered to accompany Karen customers to the bank to help translate for them. When she came to the U.S. in 2007 at the age of 14 with her parents and five siblings, Htee’s English was better than that of her parents and Karen friends.
“I started translating for my parents and their friends,” says Htee. “They don’t know English and they’re scared someone will take advantage, so I help them understand what’s going on. They trust me.”
Since Htee started at Wells Fargo in February, Burmese customers have flocked to the bank, and to her teller window. With Htee and Ty’s help, the store has also begun offering Burmese refugees first-time homebuyer seminars, Hands on Banking™ classes, and financial literacy programs about credit.
“We are very proud of Htee,” says Iris. “Many refugees don’t understand what happens at a bank or how to buy a home. She is helping us understand.”
Ty was recently recognized by Wells Fargo as the Central Iowa Volunteer of the Year and also received $1,000 for his church through the Volunteer Service Award program. This year he was also awarded three months of paid leave through the company’s Volunteer Leave program, which recognizes team member volunteers who are dedicated to helping a nonprofit or school. During his leave, Ty will continue his work at Zion Lutheran, where he will run a summer sports program for refugee kids and develop a curriculum for the church tutoring and mentoring program. He also plans to work with teammates at Wells Fargo to recruit and hire refugees as tellers and bankers in communities where there is a need.
“When I got started tutoring refugee kids a few years ago, I never could have imagined the impact this would have,” says Ty. “We’ve been able to make a real difference and I’m excited to see what the future holds.”