While the topic of refugees settling in the United States has stirred up headlines and twitter feeds, the act of resettling refugees in the Triangle has been rolling along, one foreigner or family at a time.
On Sunday a group of 40 people crowded a congregation meeting hall between services to learn how to help the 200 or so refugees entering the Triangle each year.
Jourdi Bosley, a coordinator with Church World Services, told the members of the Eno River Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship about the path refugees take to the United States and the help they need after arrival.
“The road is a long bureaucratic slog,” Bosley said. “They must prove their persecution over and over again.”
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The application and screening process is the most thorough of any screened entrant to the United States, Bosley said, takes an average of 900 days. The largest group is from Burma, the southeast Asian nation which only recently has begun tentatively loosening the grips of a military dictatorship. Others come from countries that have been embroiled in conflict for a decade or longer: Iraq, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia and Eritrea.
“The resettlement pipeline is so congested and takes so long that it no longer functions as an emergency response,” Bosley said.
Once here, refugees need help with the basics. Learning English. Learning how to navigate public transport. Learning how to shop and how to drive.
When politicians started generating controversy over refugees, particularly those from Syria, the director of Church World Services in Durham said, the Triangle proved to be a remarkably supportive community.
“Our phone has been ringing off the hook with support,” Ellen Andrews said, with just a few exceptions of anonymous voicemails left at night or over the weekend. “People voice their support, or they ask about how they can get involved.”
Bosley said one of the most basic needs is a “conversation partner” – a person who engages in patient, slow-speaking conversation while helping the immigrant grasp cultural cues of American life.
Bosley told how one conversation partner took a family on a Durham city bus to a Food Lion.
“Even if you are from here, a grocery store can be overwhelming,” she said.
In showing the family how to shop and negotiate the checkout counter, the volunteer bought one piece of every kind of fruit in the store and put on a fructarian picnic in the parking lot that doubled as an English class. What is its name? How does it taste? What is the texture? Smell? Color?
“Is it sour, or sweet? How do you cook it?” Bosley said.
A few members of the congregation talked about their experiences helping refugees settle in.
Melanie Duhon, an English as a second language teacher, said she has been amazed at her experience working with people who’ve lost their homes or family members and who’ve been stuck in refugee camps for years.
“They are without exception the most positive people I’ve met,” Duhon said. “They feel lucky and blessed to be here and start their lives over again. “When there is so much bad in the news, working with them makes you feel positive about humanity around the globe.”
To learn more:
Church World Service, RDU office