What makes for 'welcoming communities'?

Imagine you are a refugee, recently resettled to the U.S. How long will it take to feel fully part of your new country and community? CWS's Immigration and Refugee Program's annual conference in May will focus on building bridges to integration.

Young Burmese students at the March conference in Lancaster, Pa., answer questions from the audience on their life in the camps and as refugees in the United States. Photo: Melissa Engle, CWS/Lancaster

Imagine you are a refugee, recently resettled to the United States. You are living in an apartment that your local resettlement agency found and furnished for you, and your first U.S. job pays just enough to cover your monthly expenses.

It's a good start, but not enough for you to feel fully part of your new country and community. Will you ever integrate? What makes for "welcoming communities" where newcomers like you can thrive and long-time residents appreciate the many gifts that resettled refugees bring?

CWS and its 21-state, 36-city network of refugee resettlement offices and affiliates are exploring those questions on several fronts.

May 8-10 in New York City, more than 100 staff from across the CWS resettlement network will meet for their annual national conference. This year’s theme is “Building Bridges to Integration.” Speakers will include guests from the U.S. Department of State and Office of Refugee Resettlement, the UNHCR – and from Columbia University, Dr. Alastair Ager, Professor of Clinical Population and Family Health, whose current research and writing includes integration of refugees and forced migrants.

“There is a lot of talk about refugee integration, but what does it really mean? What makes the ‘durable solution’ of resettlement truly durable for refugees? What would a truly robust program to not just resettle refugees but help them integrate look like? These are the sorts of questions we’ll be wrestling with at the conference,” said Sandra Vines, CWS Associate Director for Resettlement and Integration.

While the conference will focus mostly on integration of refugees in the U.S., it will recognize that similar challenges face refugees trying to integrate in their countries of first asylum all around the world. CWS’s “Neighbors in Need” project right now is studying what makes for good refugee-host community relations in urban centers in Cameroon, Pakistan and Indonesia, with the goal of replicating “best practices” that support integration.

Hind Al Fayadh, an Iraqi refugee, answers questions in the Mental Health Workshop at the Lancaster conference. Photo: Melissa Engle, CWS/Lancaster

Giving a foretaste of the discussion likely at the New York conference was a March 30 conference in Lancaster, Pa., with the theme “It Takes a Community” and cosponsored by CWS and Franklin and Marshall College. About 200 participants, including service providers and refugees, deliberated ways to make Lancaster’s already warm welcome to refugees even warmer.

The U.S. Refugee Admissions Program is a public-private partnership that supports an agreed portfolio of initial resettlement services during refugees’ first three to six months in the United States. “But lots of things come up after that time period,” commented CWS Lancaster Office Director Sheila McGeehan.

“Help may be available in the community,” she said, “but refugees, being relative newcomers, might not know how to access them.” Lancaster conferees recommended establishment of a “refugee center” where refugees could meet for mutual support and assistance and to connect to services after the initial resettlement period.

Whatever approach to integration a community might undertake, it certainly would recognize that life is more than a “first apartment” and “first job,” Vines said. Mastering English, enrolling in college or vocational training, getting a better job, buying a home, addressing emerging mental and physical health issues, getting the children through school, becoming a permanent resident and then a citizen, applying for family members overseas to immigrate, getting involved in local community affairs – these also foster integration, and are part of all that goes into a full and active life.

 

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