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Aug 1, 2017

Coming to America: The Refugee Experience

Sponsored Content provided by Yasmin Tomkinson - Executive Director, Cape Fear Literacy Council

This Insights article was contributed by Lauren Rogers, ESL Program Assistant at Cape Fear Literacy Council.

Refugees who are referred to the United States for resettlement by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) are enrolled in the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP).

The United States operates nine Resettlement Support Centers (RSCs) throughout the world, which work closely with individuals or families overseas to prepare eligible cases for resettlement consideration.

This process includes collecting and verifying documents, multiple stages of in-person interviews, biometric data collection, overseas health screenings, and orientation to American culture, as well as numerous interagency background checks, right up to the day that a family boards the plane.

Refugees are issued a loan through the International Organization of Migration (IOM) to cover their travel expenses. They sign a promissory note prior to departure agreeing to pay back this loan starting 6 months after arrival.

Meanwhile, the RSCs request sponsorship assurances from U.S.-based resettlement offices, which agree to facilitate the resettlement of their assigned cases. All refugees coming through USRAP must go through one of these resettlement agencies; they cannot come to the U.S. independently.

The RSCs assign cases to hundreds of local affiliate offices operating in 180 communities in the U.S. The city where a refugee is resettled depends on the resources available, including the availability of language interpreters. In special circumstances, a refugee family may request placement in a particular city if they have relatives in that community, but ultimately the assignment is not up to the refugees themselves.

Once refugee cases are assigned, local resettlement offices prepare for the refugees’ arrival. USRAP is funded through a “public-private” partnership, which means that resettlement agencies are expected to contribute a significant amount of cash or in-kind resources to supplement government funding.

Resettlement agencies achieve this by partnering with local churches, schools and other organizations, which support refugee resettlement by: forming welcome teams to sponsor families; holding donation drives to collect items needed to set up new apartments; coordinating furniture collection efforts; or adapting their services to meet the unique needs of newly arrived refugees.

Individuals support refugees by volunteering as English tutors or homework helpers, depending on the needs of the local resettlement agency.

The U.S. Reception and Placement Program issues refugees a one-time grant of about $1,000 per person. Much of this money is spent before refugees even arrive in the U.S.; it goes toward security deposits, utilities deposits and necessary furniture or pantry items.

The initial resettlement grant only covers the cost of rent for a few months. After that, some families may be eligible for standard welfare programs like SNAP or TANF, but the vast majority of refugees need to become financially independent right away. This means they must start working as soon as possible, which means they need to learn English very quickly. 

One of the biggest barriers refugees face when starting their lives in the U.S. is learning English. Speaking English is critical for adults to be successful at work and for families to become established in their new homes. Local refugee resettlement agencies facilitate learning English by connecting refugees to English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, such as those offered at the Cape Fear Literacy Council (CFLC).

CFLC has served hundreds of refugees as a partner of Wilmington’s Interfaith Refugee Ministry. Many of these English language learners have gone on to become U.S. citizens and continue to give back to the Wilmington community.

More information about refugee resettlement or the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program may be found at the UNHCR and U.S. Department of State websites.

Lauren Rogers is the ESL Program Assistant. She became involved with CFLC while working as an AmeriCorps member at Interfaith Refugee Ministry-Wilmington in 2016, and is enjoying being involved with CFLC as a staff member. Lauren holds a B.A in International Studies and a B.A. in Communication Studies from UNC-Wilmington. While pursuing her degrees, she spent a summer studying French and International Politics in Senegal. Lauren graduated in May 2016 and has been involved with nonprofits since then. She enjoys reading, yoga, and spending time with her family in Charlotte. 

Yasmin Tomkinson came to the Cape Fear Literacy Council as a volunteer tutor in 2002. It was a great experience, and she was very pleased to join the staff in 2004. She is now the Executive Director and enjoys working with adult learners and the volunteers who help them reach their goals. Yasmin studied Education and American History at Vassar College and got an MBA with a concentration in Non-Profit Management from Boston University. She worked for education-focused non-profits in rural Utah, Los Angeles, Baltimore, and Boston before moving to Wilmington.


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