Washington – Coming from Somalia,
Liberia, Burma, Laos, Bosnia, Belarus, Ecuador and dozens
of other countries, almost 53,000 refugees resettled in
the United States in 2004 fleeing violence, conflict or
the threat of persecution at home in hopes of a better life
in the United States.
“Refugees are special people; they
are survivors,” said Assistant Secretary of State
Arthur E. “Gene” Dewey, who oversees the Bureau
of Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM), an agency that
sends its workers into the refugee camps of the world to
help identify people for resettlement to the United States.
“If given a chance, they will thrive. Utica [New York]
and Erie [Pennsylvania] and communities across the United
States have given them the chance, and they know it pays
PRM works with the U.N. High Commissioner
for Refugees (UNHCR) to bring refugees to the United States,
which offers resettlement to more refugees than any other
nation. Since 1975, the United States has become the new
homeland for more than 2.5 million refugees from all over
the world, according to PRM statistics.
“These are families who – the
Erie community recognizes – come and stay and contribute,”
said Michael Murnock who helps resettle refugees in Erie.
“Then, of course, new generations come along; that’s
very important to the community.”
Murnock is with the International Institute
of Erie, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) that has been
helping refugees build new lives since World War I brought
displaced Europeans to the northwestern Pennsylvania city
on the Great Lakes.
Erie is a city of almost 104,000, but its
population has been declining in recent decades, as heavy
industries like steel and oil have weakened in the northeastern
region of the United States. The refugees who have come
to the city – about 200 in 2004, an anticipated 250
in 2005, Murnock said – help revitalize neighborhoods.
“They have their own apartments, they
pay taxes, they improve the conditions of the apartments
that they live in,” Murnock said. “Then they
go on to buy homes.”
Utica is another northeastern city where
industrial decline through the last decades of the 20th
century caused population loss and economic hardship.
“The town had been hemorrhaging for
years,” Utica Mayor Tim Julian told UNHCR’s
Refugee magazine in an April article. “The arrival
of so many refugees has put a tourniquet around that hemorrhaging.
They have saved entire neighborhoods which were ready for
the wrecking ball.”
The Mohawk Valley Resource Center for Refugees
(MVRCR) is one of the organizations that help resettle people
in Utica. They meet refugees at the airport, bring them
to new homes, show them how to operate the appliances, teach
them English, direct them toward employment and perform
any number of services necessary to help a person adjust
to a new city and nation.
“We help these people fill out the
application for public assistance,” said Dzevad Racic,
director of resettlement for MVRCR. “We assist them
to gain a social security number, also we refer them to
the local health department so they get a [medical] screening.”
Racic has experience with the routine. He
came to Utica as a refugee in 1996 leaving his war-torn
homeland of Bosnia-Herzegovina, a past that he politely
refuses to discuss. He is one of an estimated 5,000 Bosnians
who have found their way to Utica, a city with hard winters
much like those of their former homeland.
“I feel like I was born here,”
Racic said of his new hometown. “People are very comfortable
Having lived as a refugee is an advantage
in helping others, Racic said, but adds that some refugees
have a more difficult adjustment than others. Recent years
have brought more Africans to Utica. Those who come from
underdeveloped countries – such as the Somali Bantus,
for instance – need training in basic functional skills:
how to use household fixtures such as doorknobs, sinks and
With those challenges facing the Africans,
the “adjustment period can be extended for a little
bit longer time,” Racic said. “ I also see the
good result after a year and a half, two years, they are
working, they come over here with a nice car.
In Erie, Murnock said refugees make a rapid
adjustment. “All the folks become economically self-sufficient
– paying their own family bills with their own earned
income – within four to six months.”
Erie businesses are acquainted with the
long-term work of the International Institute of Erie and
the capabilities of refugees, Murnock said. Employers contact
the institute with job availabilities, and job counselors
are able to place newly resettled refugees in positions.
“Many of the refugee folks are in
assembly-line positions in manufacturing, and there are
some other positions in retail that our employment people
locate,” Murnock said. A few of the Erie newcomers
start their own businesses – restaurants, gift shops
and grocery stores, creating further employment and commerce
in the city.
Almost 53,000 refugees came to the United
States in 2004 and started making lives in places like Erie
and Utica. In 2005, Dewey said he hopes more will make this
same journey, perhaps 55,000. Dewey said that other U.S.
communities involved in resettlement efforts report similarly
positive experiences. PRM works with 10 nongovernmental
organizations in the reception and placement of refugees,
evaluating the communities that welcome them and their capability
to provide the support and counseling that refugees will
need to build lives for themselves in a new land.
“There’s strong domestic support
for the U.S. admission program among the NGOs, who see this
as part of a humanitarian mission,” Dewey said.
The president makes a decision each year
on the number of refugees the United States will be able
to accept for resettlement. In 2005, that number is 70,000,
but Dewey said it will be at least 2006 before PRM is able
to muster the funding and the capacity to select, approve,
train and resettle so many people, given the additional
complexity that has entered the process in recent years.
The September 2001 terrorist attacks upon
the United States demanded that PRM, working with the Department
of Homeland Security, develop a more thorough and rigorous
process for interviewing and screening possible resettlement
candidates in order to protect U.S. national security. That
process has been difficult, Dewey said, and the additional
requirements have increased initial settlement costs from
about $2,200 per refugee in 2001 to about $3,500 per person
in 2004 – about a 60 percent increase.
Dewey is optimistic about gradual increases
in what he calls the “rescue operation” of refugee
admissions, but he also acknowledges that it’s impossible
for the United States to meet the needs of hundreds of thousands
– perhaps millions – of refugees for whom repatriation
will never be possible.
U.S. admissions of refugees exceed the sum
total of all the other nations, according to PRM figures.
Dewey calls on these other nations to step up their efforts
to open their doors to refugees.
The United States, Canada, Australia, Sweden,
Norway, Finland, New Zealand, Denmark and the Netherlands
accept the majority of refugees resettled each year. Ireland,
Iceland, Spain and the United Kingdom have developed programs
over the last few years. The U.N. High Commissioner for
Refugees also describes Argentina, Brazil and Chile as emerging
details about PRM’s resettlement activities are
available on the State Department’s Web site.
Additional information on the international
resettlement activities is available on the UNHCR Web