Durham News

Duke University professor, students help African refugees in Durham

They come from the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic and neighboring African countries searching for a new life and safety in an America they have only heard about.

But after fleeing political unrest, they face the realities of adapting to a new climate, culture and economy.

In Durham, some are getting help with the transition from some French-speaking Duke University students.

About three years ago, professor Deb Reisinger started a service-learning course that combines a study of French, global displacement and working with refugees.

This semester 16 students worked with refugees, most also working with French journalist Geraldine Smith to write articles on what the refugees face. The Durham News will run the articles through January.

According to the Worldwide Refugee Admissions Processing System, which has information since 2002, a total of about 345 refugees have been relocated to Durham from the Central African Republic, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Sudan. About 277 came from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Many of the countries are former French or Belgian colonies.

The students trained with resettlement agency Church World Service Durham, which connected them with the refugees who had lived in Durham from two weeks to two years.

“Having someone to meet with regularly to practice English and jobs skills proves an invaluable resource to new arrivals,” said Jourdi Bosley, a Church World Service Durham community resource coordinator.

Many of the families struggle because the jobs available to them don’t pay well. Many have two jobs, Reisinger said .

“It’s tough, but it is a better situation than they were living in before,” she said. “But it is not easy.”

Becoming a refugee

The path to obtaining refugee status typically begins with an individual or family fleeing their country of origin and registering with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

At the end of 2015, an unprecedented 65.3 million people around the world were forced from home, according to the organization. That includes nearly 21.3 million refugees, people fleeing persecution or conflict. Over half of the refugees were under the age of 18.

“The responsibility of UNHCR is trying to find solutions for refugee situations,” said Ellen Andrews, director for Church World Service Durham immigration and refugee program.

Ideally, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees resolves a situation by working to allow a family or an individual to return to their home country, Andrews said.

The second best solution is to help them integrate into the country where they have fled. And the third option is resettlement in a country that has settlement programs, including the U.S., Australia, Great Britain and Germany.

In 2015, some 69,933 refugees arrived in the U.S., including 2,475 in North Carolina, according to federal statistics.

Once refugees are referred to a certain country for resettlement, they start undergoing processes defined by that government’s program, Andrews said.

Some refugees end up living temporarily in an urban area in the country in which they fled, others end up living in a refugee camps, Andrews said.

“Sometimes people live in those camps for years,” she said. “We’ve resettled refuges who have been living in those camps for upwards of 20 years.”

Refugees coming to the U.S. undergo a serious of interviews with the Department of Homeland Security, Citizenship and Immigration Services, and other organizations, along with various background checks and clearances.

They also go through a medical screening. Once they clear the process that takes from 18 to 24 months, often longer, they go through an orientation that focuses on the trip to the U.S., Andrews said.

A plane ticket is booked through the International Organization for Migration. Refugees are required to pay back that cost once they come to the U.S. and start working. Before the refugees arrive, their case is connected to an agency like Church World Service, which finds housing and enrolls them in English classes and other services under a three-month resettlement program.

“We take them home, we make sure they know how to use everything in the apartment, “ Andrews said. “We teach them how to use the bus. How to go to the grocery store. How to get to their English classes. How to get to their kid’s school.”

The idea is for the refugees to be able to meet their basic needs within three to six months.

“It sounds monumental, and it never ceases to amaze me that basically everybody does it,” Andrews said. “Refugees are incredibility resilient people.”

The State Department provides $1,125 per refugee to the agency, with additional funding going to partner agencies to cover administrative costs.

‘A natural fit’

When Reisinger was young, her family sponsored a refugee family, and she later volunteered for various organizations.

As a teacher, she started searching for a way to bring more social justice to her teaching.

“When this opportunity came up, learning that there are all of these French speakers coming to our area, it just seemed like such a natural fit,” she said.

After this semester, several students enrolled to take the class again in the spring, while others committed to help teach English as a second language classes or participate in group activities, she said.

Virginia Bridges: 919-829-8924, @virginiabridges