When I first moved to Columbus, OH, the major foreign-born population was the Southeast Asian refugees. Gradually we had other ethnic groups moving into the Central Ohio area: Ethiopian/Eritreans, Ukrainians, Latinos, East Indians, Chinese and Japanese. The growth in our ESL classrooms was slow but steady. Then in the mid-1990s, the stream became a flood. Somali refugees had found Columbus!
The city and surrounding area changed dramatically in a short period of time. From less than 100 people of Somali heritage in 1990, we grew to over 40,000 today. And yet the growth did not seem to create any debilitating disasters. The city government, social service agencies, and school systems met this challenge with some major adjustments, and while there are still areas that need work (more Somali representatives in the police force for example), overall the community showed amazing resiliency. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for all areas of the country.
This month I attended the quarterly meeting of the state refugee advisory group. We were addressed by members of several national organizations (Church World Service, Center for Applied Linguistics, HIAS, US Conference of Catholic Bishops) who are concerned by a growing anti-refugee sentiment that is popping up across the country. In the last couple years, three states have passed legislation curtailing the resettlement of refugees in their area: Tennessee, New Hampshire, and Georgia. Rumblings of similar bills being created in Ohio and Pennsylvania have led to organized plans to build grassroots support for continued refugee resettlement in our states.
One leg of this plan was to study what is actually happening in those three initial states that was causing such backlash against some of our most vulnerable immigrants. The J.M. Kaplan Fund financed a study that was conducted by HIAS, an immigrant aid society based in New York. That study is titled: Resettlement at Risk: Meeting Emerging Challenges to Refugee Resettlement in Local Communities by Melanie Nezer. This study looks at issues facing refugee resettlement in the US today.
Here is a paragraph from a website of an organization in Tennessee (limits to growth.org) that is working to stop the resettlement of refugees into their state: The states continue to lead the way in defending America from the assault of multicultural immigration. The good news today is from Tennessee, where it is now the law that towns be informed when a passel of refugees are about to be dumped, er resettled by mooch agencies like Catholic Charities. The law also allows local communities to put out the unwelcome mat when they believe they cannot absorb refugees given their economies and infrastructure.
When I began looking into this disturbing trend, I found that this mindset is not just here in the US. Canada and Australia are facing the same issue at the national level through proposed anti-immigrant legislation. Europe has been dealing with similar issues for the last decade as well. At a time when the world’s refugee population continues to grow because of situations such as Syria and Somalia, the UN’s options for our millions of refugees seems to be decreasing. Repatriation back to the home country looks bleak, the neighboring countries are overwhelmed, and resettlement into third countries is being cut-off. This is a potentially dangerous situation that can be averted with some heart and some head. I am grateful to groups like HIAS that are trying to help these victims at this critical juncture. I believe that we as educators who work with these populations need to join in this campaign to continue welcoming the victims of war into a safe and friendly environment. Wouldn’t we want the same if it happened to us?