Charlottesville home to over 3,500 refugees from 32 countries

International Rescue Committee, several community groups assist in the resettlement process

Although Charlottesville is a small city of approximately 46,000, it — along with the immediate surrounding area — has been the initial home for over 3,500 refugees, all of whom had to navigate an intricate system to remake their lives here. Since the International Rescue Committee opened its Charlottesville office in 1998, they have been one piece of the system, helping refugees from 32 different countries make a new home in Charlottesville. 

Beyond the process itself, many refugees find resettlement stressful and scary — several community organizations work to help refugees adapt to new culture, language and country.

The IRC and Resettlement

The IRC in Charlottesville — one branch of an international humanitarian nongovernmental organization — is one of eight refugee resettlement agencies in the Commonwealth of Virginia and is responsible for resettling approximately 10 percent of Virginian refugees over the past five years. 

“We do everything — we prepare for people when they first arrive, we make sure they have a home, that they get connected to services, kids get enrolled in school, we help the adults find jobs,” said Harriet Kuhr, the executive director of the IRC in Charlottesville. “We continue to serve people for several years after their arrival as much as they need with different services.” 

Farah Ibrahim, a caseworker for the IRC who originally came to Charlottesville as a refugee, experienced difficulties with many services that citizens grew up understanding, and even then she had an easier experience than many others.

“I was fortunate to know English but so many refugees don’t come with that priviledge of knowledge of English,” Ibrahim said. “It helped me navigate the system but it was still challenging to understand the health system, the social services, school. Everything was new. You have to learn everything from the beginning.” 

Other areas in Virginia with refugee resettlement agencies include Harrisonburg, Roanoke, Hampton Roads, Richmond and Northern Virginia, with Northern Virginia responsible for 48 percent of refugees resettled in Virginia and each of the other areas responsible for approximately 8 to 13 percent.

Kuhr said the number of resettled refugees has risen over the past several years, but has fallen under President Donald Trump’s administration due to both policies limiting refugees and to general uncertainty.  

“We just don’t know what’s happening,” Kuhr said. 

Ibrahim said that when she originally came to the United States as an Iraqi refugee in 2008, most people didn’t necessarily understand the refugee experience.

“Now the silver lining of everything that’s happening is that people are starting to learn more about why you become a refugee,” Ibrahim said. 

While many of the refugees in Charlottesville were displaced by the Syrian Civil War — what U.N. leaders have called “the greatest humanitarian tragedy of our times” — a wide variety of backgrounds are represented, including a large number of refugees from South and Southeast Asia.

Refugee status can apply to anyone who might “fear a return home because they fear persecution or death as a result of civil conflict,” Politics Prof. David Leblang said. Despite the number of refugees in Charlottesville, Leblang said the numbers have “tapered off dramatically over the last several months.”

Refugees and Charlottesville:

According to Kuhr, Charlottesville’s availability of rental housing and jobs, as well as its medical care and good schools, contributed to the IRC’s decision to locate in the city.

One medical resource for refugees is the University’s International Family Medicine Clinic, which in addition to helping patients on Medicaid, works closely with the Health Department, the IRC and other health clinics throughout the University hospital system. 

According to clinic director Fern Hauck, who is also an associate professor of family medicine, the IFMC has has served over 3,000 patients from more than 55 countries speaking over 60 different languages in the past 15 years. 

Hauck said that, as people coming from other countries, refugees may not have been exposed to some of the medical treatments available in Charlottesville. 

“We need to do a lot of education about the reason why we’re prescribing different treatments and medications,” Hauck said. “We have to be very cognizant of the cultural aspects [of many mental and physical illnesses] and be very confidential and encourage people to get treatment.” 

Kuhr also noted the support for refugees expressed by local government officials, such as Mayor Mike Signer, who earlier this year declared Charlottesville to be “a capital of the resistance.” 

“It just makes it easier to know that you have support from a local government,” Kuhr said. “I’m not sure that it’s honestly any change in policies or anything, but just knowing that there are elected officials and leaders that are willing to stand up in support of what you do just really makes a big difference.” 

The local support goes a long way in helping refugees feel comfortable and integrate into the Charlottesville area. “I consider myself really lucky to be in this community,” Ibrahim said.

Overall, Kuhr sees resettlement as not just a humanitarian cause, but also as an economic benefit to Charlottesville. 

“Charlottesville has an extremely low unemployment rate, so we know that there’s opportunity, that there’s actually a need for that workforce. They support a lot of the hospitality industry that is really key to Charlottesville,” Kuhr said. “I think the promotion of diversity and a very diverse community is helpful in making businesses want to come to Charlottesville..” 

Resources for Refugees after Resettlement:

Several local organizations besides the IRC assist with the process of integration and make resources available to refugees after their initial resettlement.  

These organizations include GenR, a community of young professionals and humanitarians partnered with the IRC to fundraise and volunteer and No Lost Generation, a CIO at the University whose website states their “ultimate aim is to provide opportunities for children and youth affected by the crises in Syria and Iraq to heal learn and develop again.” 

Additionally, International Neighbors is a local nonprofit that seeks to offer “a network of support services, people and opportunities that will foster a path to self-sufficiency and productive citizenship,” according to their website. 

“You might be picking up refugees from the airport and you might be the very first people greeting them and seeing them when they come into the country,” said Tori Travers, who graduated from the Batten School earlier this year and is former IRC volunteer. “Often transportation is a huge need for refugees in Charlottesville because they don’t have licenses or they don’t have cars so you’re helping to move them around Charlottesville.”

Travers said volunteer duties range from helping refugees to navigate everything from the public transit system to the job search to grocery stores. Such community support proves useful in the integration process. 

Ibrahim said the negative sentiment towards refugees since November shocked her because she felt welcomed in the Charlottesville community. 

“I didn’t feel that I was a stranger; I felt that I was blending in,” Ibrahim said. “I didn’t feel that I was standing outside, so that helped me feel safer individually.” 

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