8:24 a.m. PST January 21, 2016
Hundreds of area residents attended the Refugee Forum on Jobs and Literacy at the Salem Public Library Wednesday evening.
The forum was designed to discuss employment, education and English-language learning, cultural transition, and transportation for 50 refugees who will be arriving in Salem between February and September.
Moderator Michael Swaim said that on his way to the forum, he thought about how fortunate he was, to have been born to American citizens, on American soil.
“Just think of all the rights and all the privileges (we have) just … from being born here,” he said. “This night is about all the other people in the world who don’t have that privilege, who are being forced from their homes.”
The goal of the forum, organizers said, was to engage with the local community.
A refugee — as defined by the United Nations and as the forum audience was told — is a person who, “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”
Jenny Barischoff, of Catholic Charities, spoke about the need for volunteers to help the refugees. State, federal and local resources will help for a certain amount of time, in various ways, but there will still be gaps, Barischoff said.
Catholic Charities staff and volunteers will work to help incoming refugees secure housing and furnishings, obtain food with the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and health insurance with the Oregon Health Plan, apply for a Social Security card, and find jobs with a rapid employment program.
They will provide English language programs and are partnering with local businesses and other organizations to help refugees find work within four to six months of their arrival in Salem.
Volunteer roles needed to be filled include cultural navigators, job coaches, healthcare guides, English language partners, “welcome home” teams, donations coordinators and academic tutors for each refugee.
Three refugees currently living in Salem shared their stories and called on the community to help those coming this year.
The panelists included Pedro Careaga, from Cuba; Joel Nzabakiza, from the Democratic Republic of Congo; and Ali al-Omrani, from Iraq.
“When I look back on my life, I am very grateful,” Careaga said. “In those first years in the (United States), I was not in any program that they have now for refugees, but I did find people who were willing to help.”
Careago said all along his journey, he found people who believed in him.
“You don’t know who they (the refugees) are, why they are coming,” he said. “But, if you are willing to show a little bit of faith in the people, I strongly believe that most of the people respond to the faith that you put in them. Most of them have a very good heart. If you open your heart today, you will be able to see that.”
The incoming refugees are expected to be from several different countries, Barischoff said, including Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Burma, and Syria. She said they will be more informed about those coming two weeks before they arrive.
Because of the conflict in Syria, the United States is expected to take in 85,000 refugees this year, up from an average of 70,000 to 80,000 a year the country has maintained in recent years, Barischoff said.
Catholic Charities, on average, helps to resettle about 350 refugees per fiscal year statewide, Barischoff said. This year, the group will be helping an additional 100 refugees to resettle in Oregon.
Although several governors last year asked President Obama to reject all refugees from Syria, at least temporarily, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said in November the state would accept refugees and “open the doors of opportunity.”
For Nzabakiza, 19, it took almost 10 years for his family to escape war in Central Africa. In 2007, soldiers came to his house, took his father and killed him, he said. He, along with his mother and siblings, spent seven years in refugee camps.
Al-Omrani, 33, was an interpreter for the U.S. Army while he was living in Iraq. Many Iraqis saw him as a traitor and threatened him, he said.
He came to the United States with a special visa, sponsored by his American captain.
He said it was a very scary transition, even though he didn’t believe he was in as intense a situation as others.
“When we come here, it is really hard,” he said. “Yes, you have everything here. But I had 28 years of living there. I had memories, friends, family and culture. It was a big shock.
“People were friendly and willing to help. It has made it a lot easier for me.”
Susan Tanabe, a teacher from Chemeketa, said she was impressed the forum had people from different countries, backgrounds and religions speaking about their experiences.
“The more diversity, the less hate there is,” she said. “I want to be sure the refugees feel welcome.”
During the Q&A session, Barischoff expanded on the vetting process, which takes an average of six to eight years to complete.
Refugees who come to the United States are brave, optimistic and “enormously resourceful,” said Richard Birkel, executive director of Catholic Charities.
“They have learned how to survive,” he said. “They speak many languages … They see our country with fresh eyes. They see opportunity in a way we don’t.
“They have a great appetite for the freedom that America possesses.”
Contact Jenny Barischoff from Catholic Charities at JBarischoff@CatholicCharitiesOregon.org to apply to become a volunteer.