The local faces of an international refugee crisis
Governor Jay Inslee wrote a recent New York Times op-ed in which he said, “I told Washingtonians that I wouldn’t join those who wanted to demonize people because of the country they flee or the religion they practice. I will uphold our reputation as a place that embraces compassion and equality and eschews fear-mongering.”
Despite inflammatory comments being made by some presidential hopefuls and other lawmakers around the country, Gov. Inslee has been very vocal in his support of allowing refugees the opportunity to call America their home.
According to the U.S. Department of State Refugee Processing Center, 156 refugee cases arrived in Washington state between Oct. 1 and Nov. 30, 2015, for a total of 409 individuals. The data may call them cases, but we know that these are families — families fleeing famine, war and drought in their home countries.
It’s a coincidence that the director of the Diocese of Olympia’s Refugee Resettlement Office is named Greg Hope, but that’s exactly what his and other resettlement agencies have given refugees entering the state.
Before refugees arrive and begin receiving any assistance from resettlement agencies like the Refugee Resettlement Office, the Refugee Women's Alliance or the International Rescue Committee, they must go through a rigorous process that can take years to complete.
“We are the last bit in a very organized system to bring refugees to the United States. The State Department and Homeland Security work together to bring people here, along with USCIS (Citizenship and Immigration Services) and these days, the FBI,” Hope explains. “The people go through the process and a lot of screenings to become vetted. Then, when they’ve gone through that and are really ready to get on the plane, we are one of many agencies that the state will contact to meet them at the airport and kind of see them through their first three months here.”
Although the Refugee Resettlement Office is one of Washington’s smallest resettlement agencies, helping approximately 250 refugees per year, in those first three months it is able to provide resettling families with services including apartment setups, English as a Second Language courses, job search assistance, and microloans for small businesses (which Hope was recognized for this year).
Another local agency is the Refugee Women’s Alliance, one of the “largest nonprofit refugee and immigrant service providers in the Puget Sound area,” according to their website. ReWA helps more than 11,000 refugees and immigrants per year.
“ReWA helps thousands of clients on their path to self-sufficiency through early childhood education, behavioral health counseling, anti-human-trafficking services, ESL classes, vocational training, citizenship classes, youth programs, domestic violence and sexual assault programs, senior services, developmental disabilities services, parent education, family support and employment programs,” says Mahnaz Eshetu, ReWA’s executive director.
No matter the size of the agency, Eshetu and Hope both agree that sometimes all the services they provide still doesn't feel like enough to assist arriving refugees and immigrants.
“The need for our services is always great. Even with the fantastic support of so many wonderful funders, we don’t always have the resources to help refugees in all of the ways we wish we could,” Eshetu explains. “For example, after we help a refugee find a job, we don’t have the resources to follow up with him or her beyond three months, unless he or she comes back and asks for additional help.”
Many of the resettlement caseworkers are refugees and immigrants themselves, and take on an extra burden. “[They] work closely with people from their own communities — they often feel obligated to go above and beyond to help resolve issues and solve problems,” Eshetu says of the caseworkers’ dedication. “Although rewarding, it can be exhausting. Some refugees find after their arrival that things are not exactly as they expected, so it may take them longer to adjust to life in America.”
Life in this country does come with many things that refugees lacked in their home countries, like accessible food, safe places to live and clean water, but it also comes with extraordinary struggle and the potential for backlash, shame and prejudice.
“The argument seems to be one of security and safety, particularly when it comes to refugees from the Middle East. You can't have 100 percent security,” Hope says. “What makes America great is our ideals and values, so hopefully we can hold onto those things, even though we're a little scared, and continue to allow others in.”