In 2002, after living in Muyovozi refugee camp in Western Tanzania for nearly six years, my family and I were resettled to the United States. My father had applied through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in the late ’90s. The process took many years and involved several interviews, medical exams, delays, and pre-departure cultural orientation sessions. When we were finally approved, we embarked on a journey that led me to a West Baltimore high school where I met one of the first people who showed me the spirit of meaningful welcome.
She was only 14 years old, two years younger than I was. She had never met a resettled refugee before me and had not lived anywhere other than Baltimore City. She did not speak any of my languages—Kirundi, Kinyarwanda, Swahili, and French—or know a single fact about me, but she knew that I needed a friend. For months, she sat next to me in ninth grade history class, checking in often to make sure I was okay. Our conversations were minimal since I didn’t speak English at the time. In those first weeks, she stood next to me at the bus stop, helped me through the lunch line, and shared numerous meals with my family all without saying more than a few words.
While my friend was instrumental in my transition as a newcomer, she was far removed from the official resettlement process and the policies that affect refugees and their communities. According to Sunil Varghese, policy director at the International Refugee Assistance Project, “resettlement is the only option to permanently live in safety, but the process is incredibly arduous, long, and complex.” As we expect an increase in the number of refugees to come, building networks of supportive individuals is critical.
In the United States Refugee Resettlement Program, refugees depend heavily on local resettlement agencies. Their staff and volunteers play a significant role in the experiences of newly arrived families and individuals. Resettlement teams across the country are tasked with preparing homes for newcomers, welcoming refugees at the airport, providing cultural orientation, preparing adults for success in the workplace, and enrolling children in their local schools. While they work extremely hard to ensure that each person is placed in a community where they can thrive, the success of each family or individual is contingent on several factors that are not always clear to someone who may not be directly involved in the work. Like other resettled families, we had to overcome a multitude of challenges, including language and cultural barriers, financial struggles, and in some cases, discrimination.
The fluctuation in numbers
Since the resettlement program was established through the Refugee Act of 1980, it has offered a new home to millions of people from across the world. According to the Pew Research Center, the average number of refugees resettled in the early ‘90s was 116,000. This is a stark contrast to the more recent numbers, which fell to just under 30,000 in 2019, and even lower in 2020. The decrease in numbers is a result of anti-immigration policies—such as the Muslim ban—that were adopted under the Trump administration. Policies that reduce the number of people who may resettle in the United States tend to also increase the number of Americans who are reluctant to welcome refugees.
My family resettled in Baltimore nearly 20 years ago. Based on State Department archives, the George W. Bush administration only resettled 27,000 refugees in 2002, largely due to security concerns in the wake of 9/11. Yet amidst these concerns, there was also a sense of unity among those who supported the humanitarian work of the Resettlement Program: The success of the program is largely due to the advocacy efforts that take place locally and nationally. As Varghese states, “For this to remain a realistic option, it is vital that the United States continue to welcome refugees, and through systemic advocacy, we work to make this a reality.” It is thanks to this work that President Joe Biden recently quadrupled the resettlement number from 15,000 to 62,500.
I still remember during our transition how our two volunteer mentors helped to train us for our new lives. The two women had lived in different countries and knew that starting a life in the U.S. was not an easy task. They signed up to volunteer with the International Rescue Committee office in Baltimore and walked us through every step of our first few weeks in the new city. They showed us how stoves work, taught us how to buy groceries and other necessities, took us to the numerous doctors’ appointments newcomers must attend, and planned outings at the beach and the park. They would spend an entire day with us playing beach volleyball and building sand castles. Their commitment was far beyond what is expected of a volunteer.
Communities and generous individuals like my mentors often work in partnership with resettlement agencies, advocacy organizations such as Welcoming America, and politicians who still value the leadership role that the U.S. once held in humanitarian affairs. Through churches, schools, and other spaces, communities create sponsorship programs that provide refugees the aspect of integration that resettlement organizations are often not able to offer. Much like my friend, they can offer friendship, mentorship, and continuous support as newcomers learn their surroundings and develop practical skills.
A hopeful future for refugee resettlement
While Trump actively dismantled the refugee resettlement program, there is hope that Biden’s decision to increase the resettlement ceiling will begin to repair the damage that was done under his predecessor. As the country prepares to welcome more refugees, there are resources that will help local community members and newcomers to establish lasting connections. For instance, Welcoming America has a number of initiatives for cities, counties, and individuals to create welcoming communities. Their tools include guides for forming inclusive policies, as well as fostering economic success for newcomers and their neighbors.
As more Americans become involved in the welcoming work, our communities stand to thrive culturally, socially, and economically. When I look back at my friend’s openness and generosity nearly two decades later, I realize that she was unknowingly practicing what every refugee advocacy organization stands for as she stood for unity and friendship between refugees and their new communities. The only real connection we had was our shared humanity, and that is the only requirement for welcoming refugees.