President Obama wants to increase the number of refugees the United States takes in by about 23 percent during the next fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1.
That means there’s a need for more communities throughout the country where refugees can resettle.
This week the State Department approved Indianapolis-based Exodus Refugee Immigration’s request to open an office in Bloomington and start resettling refugees in the community.
The city is preparing for the arrival of up to 60 refugees in 2017 while trying to navigate what’s become a controversial political issue.
Coming To The U.S. As A Refugee
Yassmin Fashir spends a lot of her time on the campus of Indiana University. She’s a sophomore in the School of Global and International Studies. But it’s not just her choice of college that landed her in Indiana.
“I was born in Darfur, Sudan,” Fashir says. “I was there until I was about three years old.”
Fashir was born in a refugee camp. Her family came to the United States in the late ’90s, fleeing terror and heartache. Her father was about to be prosecuted, so they had no choice but to leave.
“So the genocide in Darfur is basically when the Janjaweed paired up, which is a militia group in Darfur, paired up with the government to massacre Darfurians,” Fashir says. “Over 3,000 were killed, millions were displaced. And one of the families that were displaced were my own.”
Fashir’s family spent time in New York and Phoenix before eventually moving to Indianapolis, where they live now. Fashir says life in America is often romanticized in Darfur and her family’s expectations weren’t met when they started their new life here. Finding jobs was hard for her parents, who are both highly educated. But their resumes didn’t matter because of the language barrier.
Fashir says people in their new community also made assumptions about her family.
[pullquote source=”Yassmin Fashir, IU Student”]”Over 3,000 were killed, millions were displaced. And one of the families that were displaced were my own.”[/pullquote]
“Shortly after 9/11 is when I really started to remember things and one of the most vivid memories is when my mom and I were driving and someone yelled at us to go back to Iran,” Fashir says. “And I was like, ‘We’re African.’”
But for every bad experience Fashir had, she also had a positive one.
“So there’s a cynical way to look at things but there’s also a very positive, optimistic way,” she says. “So I kind of feel like they were evened out through my childhood.”
U.S. Prepares To Welcome 110,000 Refugees In Fiscal Year 2017
The United Nations estimates there are about 21.3 million refugees worldwide.
During a U.N. summit on refugees earlier this month, President Obama said the United States needs to do more to help people like Fashir, who are fleeing dangerous conflicts.
“It’s a test of our international system where all nations ought to share in our collective responsibilities, because the vast majority of refugees are hosted by just 10 countries who are bearing a very heavy burden — among them Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, Ethiopia,” Obama said. “Countries that often have fewer resources than many of those who are doing little or nothing.”
To help handle an increase in the number of refugees the United States accepts during this next fiscal year, the State Department is looking for more communities to send families to. Bloomington will be one of them.
“We’ll expect to resettle about 60 refugees roughly starting late winter, early spring of 2017,” says Cole Varga, Executive Director of Exodus Refugee Immigration.
Indianapolis-based Exodus Refugee Immigration submitted the request to the State Department earlier this year.
[pullquote source=”Cole Varga, Executive Director Exodus Refugee Immigration”]”Their homes have been bombed out, they’ve been persecuted for their beliefs, their political backgrounds.”[/pullquote]
It’s in the middle of a lawsuit challenging Governor Mike Pence’s decision to ban Syrian refugees from coming to the state.
But that’s hasn’t stopped the organization from helping families relocate to Indiana. Over the past two years Exodus has helped about 140 Syrian refugees come to the state.
“Refugees flee not because they want relocate to the U.S. or because they want to just immigrate,” Varga says. “It’s because they literally cannot live in their home country anymore. Their homes have been bombed out, they’ve been persecuted for their beliefs, their political backgrounds.”
Varga says Bloomington is an ideal resettlement site because of the large academic and international community, as well as the strong public transportation system.
A group of Bloomington leaders recently formed the Bloomington Refugee Support Network to help Exodus with the transition.
Earlier this month about 100 people gathered at the Monroe County Public Library to brainstorm ways the community can help refugees with needs like housing, education and employment.
“Bloomington is a very welcoming community and it’s a very progressive community in the sense that they understand that when newcomers are coming in it’s not a burden, it’s an enrichment,” says Diane Logomsky, Chair of the Bloomington Refugee Support Network.
Exodus expects Bloomington to get families from Syria or the Democratic Republic of Congo.
But, not everyone at the meeting was in favor of welcoming refugees to Bloomington.
A small, but vocal, group of people asked questions about how Syrian refugees are screened and whether they’ll follow U.S. laws.
“Safety is a concern,” says Robert Hall, leader of Bloomington’s grassroots conservative group. “If some of the refugees come over here and they have low skills they will go on welfare and taxpayer money will be spent on them. We also have a problem with housing.”
How Refugees Are Screened
Elizabeth Dunn is an associate professor of International Studies at Indiana University and a founding member of the Bloomington Refugee Support Network. She says refugees undergo a more extensive screening process than anyone else coming into the country.
“The screening process is really, really robust,” she says. ‘The first screening process happens with the United Nations High Commission For Refugees. And UNHCR will interview them multiple times, cross check them with their databases, check them with other people’s stories, collect biometric data, run that against databases.”
And that’s just a small portion of the screening process.
Dunn says when refugees come to Bloomington the local community won’t have any financial responsibilities for the refugees. The federal government provides each refugee with money to help cover living expenses during their first few months in the country.
The local community will serve more as a support system for the new residents.
“What we’re trying to be is really their first neighbors, their first friends when they arrive,” Dunn says. “It’s really hard to move to a new country and I think you need the kind of help and support just to learn the ropes of a new place.”
Fashir says she thinks Bloomington is the best place in Indiana for Syrian and Congolese refugees to end up. But she wants the community to remember, no matter where the families come from, they are their equals.
“Refugees don’t deserve the bare minimum,” she says. “They deserve a lot more than that. So feel free to donate and feel free to help them, but know that’s not the be all and end all.”