Saturday, October 08, 2016

So you're resettling refugees!? How can I help?

This fall Canopy NWA begins its work as a full-fledged refugee resettlement affiliate of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS). We anticipate two or three refugee families arriving in Fayetteville by the end of this year, and around 25 families resettling in NWA over the next fiscal year.

What started as a hope and a prayer last winter is now a reality.

It takes a lot of work to start anything new, but starting a refugee resettlement center and building it from the ground up has required a unique blend of efforts and assets. Chief among our assets has been our network, and chief among our efforts has been networking. Canopy could not have launched without the partnership of Catholic Charities, LIRS, dozens of local volunteers, generous financial backers, the state department, and the support of community leaders.

We've done a unique thing here in Arkansas. Many if not most resettlement centers start as sub-offices or affiliates of existing Lutheran service organizations like Lutheran Social Service. What we've built in NWA is an ecumenical organization with local, ground-up leadership. God has been calling us to welcome the refugee, and our community has made all of it possible with their passion and gifts.

Along the way, people regularly sit down with me for coffee, or send a note by e-mail or text, and ask, 

How can I help?

For those of you who have asked, I'm offering this post as one answer. 

This past week, Canopy was featured on all the major television news stations. Some of you may have noticed that when these stories went live on social media, there was a storm of commentary in the (Facebook) message threads. This flurry of messaging, some of it negative, was disheartening to supporters of Canopy, but as a long-time advocate for refugee resettlement, I can tell you it's not surprising. Refugee resettlement, the process, outcomes, distinctions, they're all foreign (literally) to most people, so a huge part of our work is education.

Towards that end, the first way you can help is to get informed. Don't just get kind of informed. Get truly knowledgeable. 

At the bottom of this blog post, I've reproduced an LIRS Refugee Fact Sheet. Start by reading that sheet. Try to memorize it.

A lot of the concern about refugee resettlement articulated on social media this past week fell loosely into two categories. 

These are: 1) Security, and 2) Limited resources.

A lot of people basically say: Why are you helping refugees when we have homeless people and struggling veterans in our community? Can't you use your time and energy and funds to help the homeless?

On the issue of limited resources, a great response to this question might be: "You're right, we have some rather intractable homelessness and food insecurity issues in our community, and our veterans are under-resourced. Let's work together to advocate for better resources for those communities!" 

Then, you might add: "Refugees who resettle in the United States usually work hard in their neighborhoods, volunteer, and serve. So it is very likely that the refugees we resettle in Northwest Arkansas today will be our partners in addressing homelessness in the future."

It might also be worth pointing out that federal and state funds are allocated for specific purposes. There are governmental resources for the homeless, and the veterans, and there are also resources allocated by the federal government to assist with refugee resettlement. You simply can't divert funds designated for one program to another program, and you wouldn't want to do that anyway. 

A much better approach is to build your own organizations addressing the problems you are noticing in your community, or petitioning your politicians to allocate better funds for the homeless or veterans. On veteran care, you might want to start by reading this. On homelessness in Northwest Arkansas, read this research paper on homelessness in Washington and Benton counties.  

Another way to come at this question is to ask: What is the net benefit or loss from resettling refugees in a community?

The answer is clear: Refugee resettlement is a long-term financial blessing to communities, not a burden. If you don't believe me, take a look at these two studies:

1. A 2012 report shows a significant positive economic and community impact on Cleveland as a result of refugee resettlement:

2. A report on refugee resettlement in Miami shows that they resettle quickly and grow the economy:

On the issue of security, a great response to this question might be: "We all want security, absolutely. Refugee resettlement is the most vetted process for new Americans coming to the United States, and refugees arriving here want the same things we do--safety, a place for their families to thrive, opportunity to succeed and contribute to their community. Although security always comes up in conversations about refugees, our concern for long-term safety in our communities would be better focused on reversing and reducing our practices globally that contribute to radicalization."

It's not easy to talk with facts and rationality to people who are genuinely afraid, so this is a difficult conversation to have with people, but the truth is, it's in the self-interest of the refugee resettlement program to get this right... we want true refuge for refugees, and that can only happen if the communities in which they are settled are themselves secure and safe.

Now that you're informed, you might also want to volunteer. If you want to volunteer, we recommend you do a couple of things. First, visit the Canopy NWA web site (or your local refugee resettlement affiliate) and learn what their current volunteer needs are. Sign up for their e-newsletter, join LIRS in advocacy for refugee issues, and if your local affiliates has such a program (Canopy does) create a co-sponsor team to co-sponsor a refugee family. 

Finally, let's say you are now very informed, and you wander back to one of those social media threads where people are posting all kinds of comments about resettlement, homelessness, and veterans? Don't despair! A lot of times people are posting in a vacuum of information, and they may be genuinely afraid. Engage them with kindness, offer helpful information (in your own words) from this blog post or other resources, and create a relationship. Our community will be better when you engage those who hold a different opinion from you. We will all grow together, and become an even better canopy for refugee resettlement, the homeless, and veterans.

We're in this together!

Refugee Fact Sheet

Q. How does someone gain refugee status?
Refugee resettlement in the US is a federal program. Each year in October, the president, in consultation with Congress, sets the number of refugees to be admitted for U.S. resettlement. Currently, under the Obama administration, that number is 70,000 refugees. In 2016, the number will be 85,000, with at least 10,000 of those refugees likely to be from Syria. In past years, during the Reagan years, for example, our refugee numbers were somewhat higher at 120,000. Still, in any given year, the number the U.S. resettles is relatively small— roughly one-half of one percent of the world’s refugees, which is estimated today at over 60 million*. (UNHCR)

Q. How does the resettlement process work in the U.S.?
Nationally, there are 9 voluntary organizations that coordinate refugee resettlement, including Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS), and nearly 200 social service organizations across the country that actually do the work of helping resettle refugees in local communities. Congregations also have played a role in the resettlement process, often helping to anchor the families who come here.
Refugees often resettle in places where they can be near their families and where there are jobs, good schools and safe neighborhoods—not unlike the reasons why most of us live where we do. The best scenario is to place refugees where they can be successful. The refugee state coordinators (at the state level) agree to the number of arrivals. Resettlement organizations must have the capacity to manage the process as well.

Q. What is the difference between a refugee and immigrant?
Refugees move to a new country because they have nowhere else to go. They are eeing persecution and fear for their lives. They must prove that they have been persecuted or have a well-founded fear of persecution based on their race, religion, political af liation, and other factors. Immigrants relocate to a new country because they want to, and have approval, from the government that is receiving them. They are people who can return to their countries without fear.

Q. How do refugees support themselves?
They nd jobs. Refugees have been helpful to our economy in recent years because they have taken jobs in industries that have had employee shortages. And, these industries were good placements for refugees because they required few English or technical skills.

Q. Do refugees come here for a certain time limit?
Refugees and immigrants are here permanently. They can apply for permanent residency after a year and apply
for citizenship after ve years.

Q. Can refugees apply for public assistance?
Refugees can apply for public bene ts if they are eligible, just like other residents. Employment counselors help refugees nd work so that they can support themselves. Many refugees often nd work in manufacturing or other industries very quickly, making them ineligible for public assistance.

Q. What about refugees taking jobs and draining local economies?

Refugees are more likely to be entrepreneurial and enjoy higher rates of successful business ventures compared to natives. At the local level, refugees provide increased demand for goods and services through their new purchasing power and can be particularly revitalizing in communities that otherwise have a declining population. It is also worth noting that research has shown annual earnings growth among refugees living in the U.S. has outpaced pay increases among economic immigrants, or individuals who haven’t been displaced by disaster, persecution or violence. 

Q. Do refugees receive cultural orientation and information about customs and U.S. laws?
Yes. Refugees receive orientation before they come. Refugee resettlement agencies review this information
again when they arrive.

Q: Aren’t refugees more likely to be criminals?
Based on a recent study conducted by the American Immigration Council, immigrants are less likely to commit serious crimes or be behind bars than the native-born population, and high rates of immigration are associated with lower rates of violent crime and property crime. This holds true for both legal immigrants and the unauthorized, regardless of their country of origin or level of education. In other words, the overwhelming majority of immigrants are not “criminals” by any commonly accepted de nition of the term. For this reason, harsh immigration policies are not effective in ghting crime.
Refugees are more likely to be entrepreneurial and enjoy higher rates of successful business ventures compared to natives. At the local level, refugees provide increased demand for goods and services through their new purchasing power and can be particularly revitalizing in communities that otherwise have a declining population. It is also worth noting that research has shown annual earnings growth among refugees living in the U.S. has outpaced pay increases among economic immigrants, or individuals who haven’t been displaced by disaster, persecution or violence.

Q. Why should we allow refugees to come here?
We are a nation of immigrants and refugees. As people of faith, we are called to “welcome the stranger”. Helping refugees who have ed their homes and are displaced in refugee camps with little or no food, health care, shelter or protection is the right thing to do. We hope that someone would do the same for us if we were in their shoes.
While there is a short-term cost, there is a long-term economic gain that refugees bring. The majority of refugees open businesses, ll important jobs, become teachers, CEOs, and public of cials. The overwhelming majority of refugees and asylum seekers in the U.S. today are law-abiding, hard-working individuals and families who make valuable contributions to their communities by starting businesses, paying taxes, and by sharing their unique cultural gifts with America. Much of our continued success as a nation will rest on our ability to embrace those who come here seeking protection and better opportunities for themselves and their families. The U.S.
is a global leader in programs that support immigration, refugee resettlement and asylee protection. Let us all continue to join forces in working to help improve these programs and maintain their integrity.

*Figure includes refugees, asylum seekers, and displaced persons worldwide Updated: June 2016 

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