Virginia: Home to War-Torn Refugees

I have been fortunate to become friends with a remarkable young man, Awer Bul, who is a refugee from the southern Sudan. Born into the Dinka tribe, he was raised with a family of cattle herders. He remembers living happily and blissfully unaware of the outside world until the Sudanese civil war reached his village. His family tried to flee the violence but the fighting caught up. Mother, father and children were separated. Cattle, their main form of wealth, were stolen. Awer wound up living in a series of refugee camps in Uganda and Kenya. By a series of remarkable events, he wound up in Richmond, Virginia.

Speaking very little English and having very little formal education, Awer was deposited as a teenager in J.R. Tucker High School in Henrico County. Within eight years, he had graduated from high school and Virginia Commonwealth University. Today, he works in retail while he pursues his painting, drawing upon traditional Dinka society for inspiration, and capturing video footage of other Sudanese “lost boys” to capture their stories and preserve memories of Dinka culture. He also is raising money to build schools and dig wells for villages back in the Sudan. (Visit Awer’s website to see his art, photos and videos.)

By happenstance, Richmond is home to more than 100 Sudanese refugees. And to many Bosnian refugees. And Vietnamese, and Cambodian. I have come to know several of these people very well, and appreciate how hard they have worked to adapt to American ways and become contributing members of society. And I think of them as I read a new report by the Center for Immigration Studies, “Refugee Resettlement: A System badly in Need of Review,” by Don Barnett.

The United States plans to admit 80,000 political refugees into the country in 2011, nearly three times the number accepted by the rest of the developed world combined. Barnett argues that the U.S. has surrendered control of refugee resettlement to the United Nations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that stand to benefit from the program.

Refugees’ widespread use of welfare, subsidized housing, Medicaid and other programs “easily raises the cost of the domestic resettlement program to 10 times the official estimates of $1.1 billion annually.” Moreover, many religious organizations and NGOs “consistently refuse to commit any of their own resources for the resettlement effort,” turning the refugee program into an income stream and abandoning traditional charitable works that do not pay. Despite the fiscal impact on small towns, communities are rarely consulted about where the refugees are resettled. Barnett recommends setting a ceiling of 20,000 refugees per year.

Among Barnett’s concerns is that the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) is bringing in people from groups that “have stated openly that they do not intend to assimilate into American culture.” Fortunately, the number of refugees admitted into Virginia seems to be small enough, and the refugees come from such a diversity of homelands, that there seems to be little prospect of them creating self-imposed ghettos.

Believe it or not, Virginia has an Office of Newcomer Services that keeps track of the refugees settled in the commonwealth. According to an April 2011 report, Virginia had resettled 975 “refugees, asylees, Afghan and Iraqi special immigrant visa (SIV) holders, secondary migrants and victims of human trafficking” during the first six months of fiscal 2011. The immigrants came from 32 different countries. They came from Asia, the Middle East and Africa mostly, with a smattering from Cuba, the former Soviet Union and Latin America.

Refugees settled all around the state: 30% in Northern Virginia, 18% in Hampton Roads, 14% in Richmond, 13% in Roanoke, 12% in Charlottesville, 9% in the Shenandoah Valley, and 3% in Fredericksburg.

Refugees may pose a social-services burden upon their new communities for a while. But Virginia does not encourage a culture of dependency. All of the refugees that I have known personally — and I can think of nearly a dozen off-hand — have become productive members of society. Barnett may have a point, and the refugee program may be out of control. But from my limited, admittedly anecdotal, viewpoint, I have seen no evidence of it. The refugees I have met do not weaken American society, they strengthen it.

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