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Charlottesville accepts 241 displaced refugees in 2014-2015

Bridging the Gap, International Rescue Committee aid in integration efforts

The International Rescue Committee was founded in 1942 at the behest of Albert Einstein in an attempt to assist European refugees during World War II.

Today the IRC has 26 locations across the United States, one of which is located in Charlottesville.

The Charlottesville refugee population

In 2014, the United States accepted 70,000 refugees, reaching the maximum acceptance of refugee admissions. The legal limit for refugee admissions has dropped twice in the past five years, from 80,000 in 2011 to 75,000 in 2012, and remains at 70,000 spots for refugees in 2015.

To be considered a refugee, individuals must undergo a complex process before immigrating. Each person must go through an intensive interviewing and screening process conducted by regional refugee coordinators, and must prove that they face extreme persecution in their home country.

Once a person is declared a refugee, they are connected to the various resources available in the United States which serve to help them integrate into their new community.

The Charlottesville branch of the IRC has welcomed almost 2,000 refugees since it opened in 1998. Between Oct. 1, 2014 and Sept. 30, 2015, the IRC received and resettled 241 refugees from 12 different countries.

Harriet Kuhr, executive director of the International Rescue Committee in Charlottesville said this value is not determined at random, but rather through engaging in an in depth dialogue with the community.

“Every community that has a resettlement program has to determined what an appropriate capacity for that community is based on housing, jobs and the interest of the community,” Kuhr said.

In Charlottesville, this dialogue involves quarterly consultations that are conducted with representatives of key agencies, such as the city’s Department of Health, the Department of Social Services, elected officials and the Charlottesville school system.

Although the refugee demographic in Charlottesville varies by country of origin, it does experience trends that can be largely attributed to planned, large group departures from refugee camps, Kuhr said.

In the past several years the three biggest groups have been Iraqis, Burmese and Bhutanese.

When possible, the Office of United States Refugee Resettlement avoids creating large masses of one population in one location, Kuhr said.

“We try to help people integrate into different communities rather than just relocate in mass,” Kuhr said.

Overcoming everyday challenges

The Charlottesville refugee population faces daily challenges.

“I think it’s all difficult — even if they spoke the language when they arrived, which they often don’t, it’s all still new,” Kuhr said. “On top of that, they didn’t leave because they want to — it’s not an easy thing to do.”

The IRC has many programs designed to help refugee families adjust to life in the United States. For example, families can take English classes at the IRC, and several programs around Charlottesville — including Madison House’s “English Speakers of Other Languages” — are dedicated to teaching English to immigrants.

The goal of the IRC’s economic empowerment program is to provide refugee households with financial stability. The IRC hosts financial classes for refugees, which teach basic financial literacy as well as orientation to the American workplace. In addition, the IRC provides employment services with vocational counseling and resume-building assistance.

The IRC has helped connect 204 refugees with jobs, a majority of which are in the service industry.

“[One challenge is] figuring out a way to incorporate refugees into the economy in ways that are beneficial to them and to the city,” said Bridging the Gap Program Director Katrina Boyd, a fourth-year College student. “That’s a really big challenge, finding places for everyone to fit and feel as though they have a place here and can have a purpose.”

Another IRC program, called “New Roots” was founded in 2009 and has expanded from home garden techniques to six city locations, and eventually developed into the Michie Market.

Fourteen families grow vegetables to sell at the Michie Market on Saturday mornings between June and October. The families grow 70 varieties of vegetables on half an acre of land. This year, during Michie Market’s second selling season, the market earned $7,300, with $1,300 coming from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

By accepting SNAP, the Michie Market benefits multiple groups in the Charlottesville community: low-income families can purchase fresh produce, and refugee farmers can earn supplementary income.

Following the initial integration process, the IRC also provides legal assistance to help refugees earn their U.S. citizenship. In addition to encouraging civic participation, the IRC helps refugees file petitions for immigration benefits, family reunification and naturalization.

The IRC also offers English language and American civics classes to prepare refugees for their naturalization exams.

In the past year, the IRC helped file 299 citizenship, green card and family unification applications. 112 refugees who came to Charlottesville through the IRC were successful in attaining permanent residency, and 76 refugees became naturalized citizens.

Bridging the gap between students and the refugee population

Madison House also provides services to the Charlottesville refugee community. Madison House’s Bridging the Gap is designed to help refugee children to begin integrating into the Charlottesville community.

“The language barrier is huge,” Zanger said. “Communicating with these children’s teachers, that can be very challenging.”

Bridging the Gap is a “a youth mentoring program that specifically focuses on refugee children in the community who need help adjusting to their new life in the United States,” Boyd said

Zanger compared Bridging the Gap to a big siblings program, with volunteers spending two hours a week with their mentee. Because many parents work, Bridging the Gap volunteers engage in many activities with their mentee, ranging from helping with homework to exploring Charlottesville.

“We aim to help refugee children accommodate to the United States culture and fit in here so they don’t feel like such outcasts sometimes,” Zanger said. “A lot of times their families don’t know what kind of options they have in terms of extracurriculars and how to help them in school.”

Read this article translated into Chinese here


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