While most 17-year-olds in the states are enjoying their last moments of high school and preparing for college, a teenager from Myanmar found himself in a refugee camp for seven years. He was orphaned and despite the meager conditions of the camp, a family of five took him into their home — a 10x10 tent on a 10x20 piece of land. The United Nations gave them a packet of seeds every month, grown with water from a ditch that ran through the camp. They had a 10-pound bag of rice each month.
He was in his mid-20s when he was settled in Arkansas through the Catholic Charities Refugee Resettlement Office. Today, he’s a chef in New York City.
“Here’s this family who nobody would blame for not helping anyone,” said Frank Head, director of the Catholic Charities Refugee Resettlement Office in Springdale. “How much sacrifice does it take us to just support somebody coming in?”
According to an April 20 article by Catholic News Service, President Donald Trump cut refugee admission dramatically. For the U.S. fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, the State Department allowed for 45,000 refugees. According to the Refugee Council USA, which provides bi-weekly refugee totals, there have only been 11,245 arrivals as of April 16.
In fiscal year 2016, 85,000 refugees were authorized for resettlement and in fiscal 2017, 110,000 were authorized, the final year of President Barack Obama’s administration. The northwest Arkansas office has not resettled any refugees since September.
“That’s everything. We’re definitely ready, willing and able,” Head said. “As Pope Francis recently said, there are millions of refugees in dire, life-threatening circumstances throughout the world … We should be concerned about it as Catholics, Christians, as human beings, because this is our fellow human beings suffering and dying through no fault of their own. European countries take in millions. We should be ashamed we do so little.”
The CNS article stated that about 25 percent of all refugees in the U.S. are resettled by Catholic Charities agencies. For Arkansas’ resettlement office, arrivals vary from year to year, but on average, they resettle about 10 to 30, but also offer help to secondary migrants, those seeking asylum and in the past Cubans. Most refugees have come from Myanmar, with others from Iraq, Afghanistan and El Salvador, the office stated.
“It obviously gives us less resources. It hasn’t affected us as much because we also have a grant with the state to give employability training to any refugees who have been here up to five years,” Head said. “So we’re focused more on that process right now than settling refugees right now because of the cutbacks. But ultimately if they don’t let any refugees in, you don’t need a refugee resettlement agency.”
Because of the dramatic decrease in refugee resettlement throughout the country, Catholic organizations have laid off or transferred about 300 employees. However, the concern is more focused on the humanitarian outreach. Currently, there are 66 million people that have been forcibly displaced throughout the world, many living in refugee camps.
The refugee resettlement office focuses on resettling people in a 100-mile radius of Little Rock after Canopy NWA, a nonprofit in Springdale, was established in spring 2016 and focuses on northwest Arkansas, per state guidelines. Head serves on Canopy’s board of directors.
Canopy executive director Emily Crane Linn said the nonprofit settled 55 people in the federal fiscal year 2017 and 11 since October. They were expected to help resettle 100 refugees last year and 75 this year, but were given a revised number of 50. Linn said the cuts affect not only their budgets, but local volunteers, global partners and refugees who hang in the balance.
“What’s difficult is not just that the president has set a low goal for the year, but the administration is making no effort to try to reach that goal,” she said.
Head explained that Canopy has been able to resettle more clients because it is authorized to settle refugees who have no ties to the United States. Catholic Charities of Arkansas, however, can only settle refugees with a family tie in the state.
According to CNS, refugees receive a one-time $1,125 stipend per member of the family in federal funding, which assists expenses while they are being settled.
The resettlement process must end within three months, with most families being stable by six months, the refugee resettlement office stated.
To allow refugees with no family locally to be settled in the state, Canopy had envisioned churches adopting families as a support system. St. Joseph Church in Fayetteville was the only Catholic parish to participate.
“We were starting and hoping to expand that and then administration’s changed and we had less” refugees, Head said.
In fall 2017, St. Joseph Church adopted an African family — parents, five boys and a baby girl born in January — initially to give rides to church, school and other appointments. The father, Rimbo Ilembo, is Catholic and some of the children are baptized.
Originally from the Republic of the Congo, they spent 15 years in a refugee camp in Tanzania. All of the older children were born in the camp. Parish life director Luz Morlet said it’s important for parishes to welcome refugees because churches are the place for extended family, that sense of community.
“I can tell you, they’re so loving. When you see the kids’ faces, the big smiles and how much they appreciate being here and being free, you cannot deny God’s love,” Morlet said. “We’re citizens of the world; there should not be barriers, any frontiers. They are seeking the best and I’m sure those kids are going to flourish and do wonders. They are so smart.”
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