Imagining the refugee experience in Virginia

by | Jul 17, 2017 | POLITICS

The International Rescue Committee began resettling refugees in Richmond in November 2016.

As Site Manager for the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in Richmond, I have seen refugees restart their lives and be embraced by this city. Nothing is more heartwarming that watching a city support those who are the most vulnerable. Nonetheless, on July 13, 2017, President Trump’s executive order, officially known as the Executive Order Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States and unofficially as the ‘travel ban’ took effect, suspending refugee resettlement for 120 days.

So what does this mean in real-terms?

The Supreme Court recently ruled that refugees must have a “bona fide” relationship with a person or entity in the US, in order to enter one of our communities. However, it is now up to the Trump administration to decide what is deemed “bona fide” and as a result, they have chosen to exclude grandchildren, grandparents, nieces and nephews.

Because of this, women, children, men, and entire families are not able to reunite with their loved ones in the US. Instead, they are being left in war zones where their lives remain in extreme danger. The Trump administration has deemed these people to be a security risk, claiming that refugees do not receive thorough enough vetting before entering the US.

Twenty national-security experts, including General David Petraeus and Henry Kissinger disagreed with this assertion – sending a letter to Congress urging them to provide refuge without compromising security. Amongst other things, this letter also stated, “To do otherwise would be contrary to our nation’s traditions of openness and inclusivity, and would undermine our core objective of combating terrorism.”

This letter is correct, refugees have been a core component of our national tradition since the Mayflower sailed from England in 1620, and part of our foreign policy since the the Soviet Union started invading central European countries in the 1950s.

Today, there are more than 21 million refugees worldwide with over half coming from Syria, Somalia, and Afghanistan. Put in a wider perspective, Lebanon, a country of only 4 million people, is now hosting an estimated 1 million refugees from Syria. This kind of humanitarian crisis has not existed since World War 2.

Syrian Refugees in Europe. Photo by Mstyslav Chernov, WikimediaCommons

For our allies and adversaries alike, refugee resettlement has been a powerful symbol of American leadership. And more recently, this has been a symbol of freedom for those seeking asylum from oppression in places like Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan.

The smear campaign against refugees did not begin with Trump, however. Many people don’t remember, but at the height of World War 2, the US turned away thousands of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Europe – most of whom were later killed in concentration camps. The IRC was actually formed in 1933 by a group of Jewish scientists and professionals, including Albert Einstein, as a way to protect people fleeing the worst kinds of war and conflict.

Since the passing of the Refugee Act in 1980, more than 3 Million refugees have come to the US. President Reagan resettled around 660,000 refugees from places like Indonesia and the Soviet Union, more than any other president in history. Yet the level of fear mongering in today’s politics is entirely unprecedented since no US citizen has actually ever been killed by a refugee in a domestic terrorist attack. Statistically speaking, you are four times more likely to be struck by lightening than be killed by a refugee.

Today’s global humanitarian crisis is the worst since 1945, there is no disputing this. And it is estimated that one out of every 115 people on the planet is currently displaced from their home. While the humanitarian plight of refugees is impossible to ignore, it is only one part of the equation.

So what is it like to be a refugee in Virginia?

The average time for refugee displacement in 2016 – from their country of origin – to the time they could enter the US is 16 years. Furthermore, it typically takes refugees three years to complete the rigorous vetting process, which involves five government agencies with additional security screenings for refugees coming from the Middle East.

Even after this arduous vetting process, refugees may still wait many more years before having the opportunity for resettlement in Canada, Australia, Europe, or the US – less than half of one percent of all refugees will actually be resettled in the US.

To have meaningful public discourse about how we can assist refugee families, we must learn how to effectively speak about it in our cities and communities.

Syrian Refugees in the US. Photo by Landon Shroder

For instance, more than 600 refugees will be resettled in Richmond this year. Every individual that is resettled gets $1,000 of federal funds, which provides for housing, furniture, and groceries. This is $600,000 that is immediately injected into the local economy.

Refugees also apply for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Women Infant Children (WIC) benefits, both of which are federal funds that get spent at local Richmond businesses. Refugees are also expected to do what all of our immigrant grandparents did: work, provide for their families, and generate economy for our cities.

Here in the US, refugees do not get long-term assistance like in Germany or Canada, where several years of housing and cash assistance is commonplace. The backbone of refugee resettlement in the U.S. is self-sufficiency through employment – just like everyone else.

Another positive reality that is often over looked is that in 2016, 84 percept of all refugees became self-sufficient within six months. These are people who have an entrepreneurial spirit and are inherently motivated to build new and successful lives for their families. In this year alone, the IRC in Richmond has helped 92 percent of refugee families gain employment and become self-sufficient within 90 days of arrival.

Refugees typically take low-wage jobs and work positions that employers often struggle to fill in the hospitality, warehouse, and food-service industry. Regardless, the end result is always a net positive for cities since refugees immediately contribute to local economy and start paying taxes on their income. After six months in the US, most refugees even start to pay back the cost of their airfare – there is literally no “free ride” to the US as a refugee.

The American Refugee Resettlement system is an example throughout the world, and the refugee experience is one that should speak to all Americans that have an immigrant story in their family. Refugees are survivors, but they cannot do it alone. Refugee resettlement depends on a welcoming community, volunteers, and donated resources.

To find out how you can get involved, please contact the International Rescue Committee in Richmond.

*Cover Photo by Landon Shroder. Mural by Nils Westergard

RVA Staff

RVA Staff

Since 2005, the dedicated team at RVA Magazine, known as RVA Staff, has been delivering the cultural news that matters in Richmond, VA. This talented group of professionals is committed to keeping you informed about the events and happenings in the city.

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