How and why refugees come to the U.S.


Read the story online

1:48 p.m. PDT June 15, 2016

Joel Nzabakiza describes his childhood as a “sad story.”

When he was 7, his father was stabbed to death in front of his family.

Fleeing for safety, Nzabakiza’s mother led his family, including his five brothers, to a nearby forest where they hid for a week until they were able to return to their destroyed home.

After years of running from the religious conflict in central Africa, Nzabakiza and his family lived in refugee camps for seven years, though they had to frequently live in camps apart from one another.

One day, they were given the news they’d been hoping for — they were able to resettle in the United States as refugees.

Arriving in Salem in April of 2015, everything was different.

“We came; we didn’t know anything,” said Nzabakiza, now 19.

About 60 people like Nzabakiza and his family have moved to Salem since January.

These refugees are in addition to the more than 1,300 who came to Oregon in 2015 primarily from Cuba, Burma, Bhutan, Iran, Iraq, and Somalia.

Organizations like Catholic Charities Oregon coordinated efforts to obtain needed materials, homes, job and language support and more for the future Salem residents.

In 1951 the United Nation’s Refugee Convention defined a refugee as someone 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.”

In order to obtain refugee status, people have to go through extensive processes, including fleeing from the country in conflict, registering as a refugee with the United Nations, waiting — sometimes for years — to be approved, and undergoing the resettlement process into the country they will be in next.

By the end of 2014, there were 19.5 million refugees worldwide, according to the United Nations, 14.4 million of whom were under the mandate of the United Nations Human Rights Council. This was an increase of 2.9 million from 2013.

The remaining 5.1 million refugees were registered with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.

However, there are an estimated 59.5 million forcibly displaced persons around the world, according to United Nation’s Global Trends report. This population not only includes refugees, but internally displaced persons, asylum-seekers and stateless people as well.

Nzabakiza’s story is telling of many of these people.

Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo in central Africa, just after the second Congo war officially ended, Nzabakiza grow up in a time of violence.

Desperately hoping to escape the violence, his family sought refugee status and eventually were able to resettle in the states.

But it wasn’t an easy adjustment.

Nzabakiza spoke about using the shower and not knowing how to adjust the temperature or knowing how to ask for help for something so seemingly simple.

Shopping for food, clothes or school supplies could be overwhelming.

Though he speaks about seven languages, Nzabakiza had to adjust to reading textbooks and completing his math homework in a language less familiar to him.

But after three months, Nzabakiza said these things started to be more commonplace.

Nzabakiza attends McKay High School in Salem and plays on a local soccer team.

He spends his extra time working, going to church, and having fun, when he can — he really likes bowling.

He plans to attend college to become a doctor, with the hopes of attending Willamette University or another Oregon school in a couple years.

“God blessed me here to help my people back home,” he said in a previous interview with the Salvation Army.

Though his mother and siblings are now in Texas living with other relatives, Nzabakiza continues to study hard in school in Salem.

He has also been helping the new refugees as they adjust to American life.

Nzabakiza said two families — one from Kenya, the other from the Ivory Coast — live near the family he is staying with. He helps translate for them and teach them things that may be unfamiliar — like adjusting the temperature of the shower.

Jenny Barischoff of Catholic Charities Oregon said about 80 percent of refugees are women and 50 percent are under the age of 18.

“Historically, the U.S. resettles the greatest number of refugees each year,” she said in a presentation given earlier this year on refugees.

Barischoff said these people often flee their homes with little to no belongings. Sometimes they are displaced within their home country, but a refugee specifically is seeking help from another country, which is often a neighboring country.

According to the U.N., most refugees hope to one day return to their home, though some will undergo a citizenship process to become a permanent resident elsewhere.

When registering with the U.N., the candidates are interviewed multiple times, Barischoff said. She said their story has to be corroborated.

They are given a card from the U.N., that provides access to camps, food, and shelter, among other supplies.

Then the waiting begins. Barischoff said the average wait time is 10 years.

Once resettled, refugees have three paths they can take, or “durable solutions,” as Barischoff said.

They can undergo voluntary repatriation — which tends to be the most desired; work to gain legal status in host country — which is very rare; or establish permanent resettlement in a third country.

In Oregon, the Department of State and the U.S. Department of Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement contract with organizations like Catholic Charities Oregon and Lutheran Community Services Northwest to set requirements and deadlines for refugees in the area.

Barischoff said the ultimate goal of all resettlement programs is rapid employment, saying this is the “best pathway for integration.”

Once the refugees arrive in Oregon, the resettlement process beings. The refugees arrive, attend a welcoming orientation, go to the Department of Human Services for benefits, and more.

The federal and state governments have programs to help pay for some the refugees’ first 90 days in the country. Barischoff said Catholic Charities and others are working hard during that period to make sure the refugees have a sustainable life to support themselves when they no longer receive funding.

To aid them, organizations help with immunizations, medical screenings, English language learning services, enrollment for children in school as well as ongoing case management.

Barischoff said they help with cultural adaptation as much as possible as well, introducing the refugees to life in Oregon. Grocery shopping, for example, is a task that may be easy for some, but when someone doesn’t speak English, cannot read the ingredients or signs and needs helps converting currencies, it can be much more daunting.

Since refugees borrow money for plane tickets from the International Organization for Migration to be resettled, Barischoff said, they have to start paying it back after six months. At one year, they are eligible for a green card. At five years, they are eligible to apply for citizenship.

Barischoff has helped resettle many refugees in the area.

“Greeting a newly arriving refugee family at the airport is one of the greatest experiences – it’s like seeing a baby be born,” she said.

Contact Natalie Pate at, 503-399-6745 or follow on Twitter @Nataliempate or

Coming to America

News of refugees coming to the United States and parts of Europe this year was met with resistance from many. This ongoing series will address those concerns and discuss the different ways and reasons people come to the United States.

All of the Coming to America stories, photographs and other resources can be found at

Refugee growth in Oregon

According to the Oregon Department of Human Services, more than 64,000 refugees have resettled in Oregon since 1975. Most of these refugees initially settle in the greater Portland metro area.

Currently, the most common refugee groups arriving in Oregon are from, Cuba, Burma, Bhutan, Iran, Iraq, and Somalia.

Oregon’s refugee arrival populations from the past 15 years:

  • 2015: 1,357
  • 2014: 1,246
  • 2013: 1,105
  • 2012: 986
  • 2011: 944
  • 2010: 1,185
  • 2009: 820
  • 2008: 811
  • 2007: 830
  • 2006: 1,135
  • 2005: 1,142
  • 2004: 1,660
  • 2003: 912
  • 2002: 1,126
  • 2001: 1,582


Famous refugees in the United States include:

  • Albert Einstein 
  • Milos Forman
  • Madeline Albright
  • Gloria Estefan
  • Henry Kissinger

Published by Natalie Pate

Natalie Pate is a freelance journalist and author based in Salem, Oregon. She wrote about education for more than seven years at the Statesman Journal and now covers education and other topics throughout the Pacific Northwest. She is originally from Colorado and earned her B.A. in Politics and French from Willamette University.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: