Refugee resettlement in the US

Of the millions of people in the world displaced from their home due to conflict and persecution, a small fraction are resettled permanently to a third country each year. These are often those who have no hope of return—sometimes having lived for years in refugee camps—and who simply want to have a place to start moving on with their lives with no more interruptions.  

Many modern countries participate in this world-wide system of offering a safe haven to fleeing families. Up until 2016*, the United States was the world leader in this regard with a refugee program undiscriminating of race and economic status and expanded to include special immigrants who had assisted US forces in the war on terror, victims of human trafficking, and more. We were after all a country founded by those fleeing religious persecution and a beacon to many nations thereafter.

But imagine being dropped in a place where you don’t speak the language, understand the culture, or have the network of resources or respect that you once held before.  For some refugees, life in America might be the first time they’ve had to deal with the idea of paying bills or working for money.  Others may be former professionals now forced to take on low-level janitorial and factory jobs.  Not only do refugees have to adjust to a new place and a new language, they must quickly adapt to a whole new way of life.

In 1980, following an influx of refugees from the war in Vietnam and surrounding areas, it was decided to create a standardized system in America that would help new refugees to quickly learn and adjust to the new cultural and social context in which they find themselves. The US Refugee Program became a public-private partnership in which non-profits took on responsibility to help meet the goals of resettlement on behalf of the government-funded program.

These volunteer-driven, often faith-based agencies are assigned to offer orientation and practical aid to help refugee families in their first months of transition—supplying initial provisions and explanations of what to expect, connecting to resources and community and employment, problem-solving for individual difficulties. Volunteers play a role in this process as they offer daily interaction, friendship and encouragement. Depending on state and private resources, agencies may have ESL classes, special programs for youth, and other such services.

Despite its value, all this help can only be offered for a limited time and refugees must quickly begin to make a way of their own both socially and financially despite the unfamiliarity of their surroundings. The good news is that most refugees families are self-sufficient very quickly–often working, paying taxes, and handling their own bills within a six months of their arrival. After one year, they are able to make their stay more stable by registering as permanent residents of the United States. In five years, they have the opportunity to apply for American citizenship and contribute their piece of what truly makes America great.

*The campaign and arrival of the Trump administration led to a sad decline in the refugee program of the US, not to mention an attack on all levels of legal immigration. The US refugee program that had been a bipartisan staple for forty years was turned into a political tool and target. I am hopeful that this decline is reversing sooner rather than later as I have seen friends and colleagues affected by separation from families, loss of privileges, and fear of rights being taken away.

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