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Refugees Build New Lives in the United States

Nearly 53,000 people admitted for resettlement in 2004

Posted: June 17, 2005

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 off.”

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 here.”

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 bathrooms.

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 resettlement countries.

Further 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 site.

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