Shaun Casey, special representative for religion and global affairs at the U.S. Department of State, and Melineh Kano, executive director of RefugeeOne, discuss the role of religious communities in refugee resettlement in the United States, as part of CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call series.
FASKIANOS: Good afternoon from New York, and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the national program and outreach here at CFR.
As a reminder, today’s call is on the record, and the audio and transcript will be available on our website at CFR.org.
We are delighted to have Shaun Casey and Melineh Kano with us today to talk about the role of religious communities in refugee resettlement in the United States.
Shaun Casey is the special representative for religion and global affairs at the State Department. He’s written on the ethics of the war in Iraq, as well as the role of religion in American presidential politics. And he’s also the author of The Making of a Catholic President: Kennedy vs. Nixon in 1960. He’s a member of the American Academy of Religion, and he’s previously served as visiting scholar at the Center for American Progress, as well as an expert in religion at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He’s a graduate of Abilene Christian University, Harvard Divinity School, and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
Melineh Kano is the executive director of RefugeeOne, a refugee resettlement agency that provides a full range of services to refugees resettled in the Chicago area. At RefugeeOne, she oversees the creation, implementation, and evaluation of all RefugeeOne programs. Ms. Kano is an Armenian refugee from Iran. She received her degree in business management from the University of Rome, and is fluent in Armenian, Farsi, French, Italian, and English.
Shaun and Melineh, thank you very much for being with us today, which is the World Refugee Day, so it is fitting that we would be having this discussion. It would be great if you could talk about what your organizations are doing to assist refugees and the displaced around the world, Melineh, and what more Americans can do to address and help alleviate this crisis that is growing and very much in the news. So why don’t we start with you, Melineh, and then we’ll turn to Shaun?
KANO: Thank you, Irina. It’s a great pleasure to be joining you. And I want to thank all the listeners for dedicating an hour of their busy day to learn more about the plight of refugees and learn how they respectively, in their own communities, can bring more attention and prominence to the cause of refugees.
As we have all heard in the news, we are experiencing an incredible crisis worldwide of more than 60 million refugees right now being displaced, the largest number since World War II. And to put it in perspective, worldwide, only about 140(,000) to 150,000 refugees a year will get the opportunity for resettlement. So, obviously, the numbers, you know, tell the story there, that majority of those who are homeless and displaced right now will remain in their refugee situations for decades to come, unfortunately.
United States government has run a refugee program for many years now. This program runs through State Department Bureau of Population, Refugee(s), and Migration, and from here on I’ll refer to it as PRM. It’s very much viewed as a public—as a public-private partnership. So, for PRM to be able to do this work, they partner with nine resettlement agencies, of which about, you know, five are—have religious affiliation and the rest—you know, a couple of them have ethnic, and two are secular groups. RefugeeOne in Chicago partners with Church World Service, Episcopal Migration Ministries, and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, which as the name indicates are—you know, automatically brings up the affiliation to the mainline Protestant denominations.
But before we get to those details, I wanted to talk a little bit about how a refugee actually is processed and comes to the U.S. Most refugees flee their country. So they are outside of their country when they’re declaring themselves to be a refugee, and their first step is to register with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. And if they are recognized as an international displaced person, they are given what’s called a protection letter, which means they’ll be offered one of three solutions: that eventually they might return home on voluntarily basis; or they may be offered a chance to integrate in their country of asylum, like it happened for many Syrians who went to Germany or some of the other European countries; and the third solution is resettlement. And that’s where, obviously, we come in and our role is.
So, if a refugee is referred from UNHCR for resettlement to the U.S., if they meet the criteria, then there are many partners overseas that work with PRM to process refugees and make this work happen. So refugees have to first prove their fear of persecution. That’s the basis of becoming a refugee for the U.S. and the fact that they may never go home. So they are interviewed by United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. If their case is approved, then Homeland Security steps in and begins doing the background checks and does multilevel process, and it takes about two years. And then, of course, the medical check is done and a biodata is formed and sent to the U.S. to the processing center—refugee processing center, and their case is allocated to one of the local affiliates like RefugeeOne that works with the nine resettlement agencies.
So, for us, there are two types of cases: there are those who are coming to join relatives; and those who do not have any U.S. ties, but they are coming based on their refugee story merits, and they may be allocated to anywhere across the U.S. So, once a case is received from—you know, by RefugeeOne or an organization like ours, then what we do is we have to prepare for their arrival. And if there is a relative, as I mentioned, we may or may not work with the relative depending on how long they have been here themselves and what type of resources they have. And if not, we go out in the community and seek community partners to take on the role of co-sponsorship.
Very often, this role is taken on by a faith community, and not Christians only. We have been working, especially with the highlight that’s been given to the Syrian refugee crisis, a lot of—you know, there has been tremendous positive response from the local community wanting to help refugees. So, in the last year, we have had over 40 congregations of faith that have co-sponsored refugee families. And it includes, you know, the different denominations of the Christian faith, as well as Jewish congregations and some Muslim groups. And right now, we have 26 such congregations in the queue waiting to be matched with an arriving family.
So what does it mean when a congregation signs up to be a co-sponsor? There are varying levels of commitment. And everything that I’m telling you is actually on our website, RefugeeOne.org, and, you know, you can feel free to download the packets and share it with groups in your communities. So they commit to raise resources that are needed for the resettlement, and depending on the size of the family that may vary from 4,000 (dollars) to 8,000 dollar(s). They commit to put together a group of volunteers from their congregation that will be able for a period of six months to visit the family and basically befriend them, and help them with various activities—you know, showing them the city, taking them out, visiting them at home, tutoring their children, helping adults learn English and how to navigate the system, and go to the airport to pick them up when they first arrive, help us furnish their apartment, and, you know, anything and everything that goes into being part of a welcoming community for these newly arriving refugee families.
A lot of, you know, times, these relationships, you know, are limited to six months, and then the congregation may move on and co-sponsor another family. Other times, even although they may do that and take on another family, but these relationships really blossom, and the refugees and the various individuals from these congregations remain, you know, friends throughout their lifetime.
For us as an organization—and we have been doing this work since the early ’80s; you know, we have a staff of 40; amongst ourselves, we speak more than 35 languages; and we offer several programs to help through the adjustment period of refugee’s life in the U.S.—we have noticed that when there are co-sponsors involved, you know, as part of a refugee’s initial life in the U.S., it makes a tremendous difference. And it is really a game-changer, because they feel welcomed by the community, by their new country in a different way, you know? It’s not just the agency or the case manager that is helping them, but they now have new friends upon arrival. And on the other side, you know, most of the time, these communities of faith come back to us and tell us, thank you for choosing us, you really changed our view of, you know, our mission. And it’s of great significance to them, and especially of involving the youth groups.
I think parents love it when their children, you know, get this different perspective of what other kids, refugee kids of their age group have been through, and how much they, for example, wanted to have education and they were not able to access. And, you know, perhaps they realize how we in the Western world take so many things for granted that should be of greater value, and that changes the perspective.
So I think it’s of benefit from both sides, for the refugees as well as—as well as the faith communities and their members that get involved. And without this, we honestly would not be able to do our work. And again, resources aside, which are badly needed, the human connection is what gives hope and makes this work possible from our perspective.
I think I will stop here, because I know there will be a Q&A afterward and perhaps we can, you know, get into more details and address other issues later on.
FASKIANOS: Melineh, that was terrific. Thank you very much for giving us insight to the terrific work that you’re doing.
FASKIANOS: Shaun, let’s go to you now to talk about the policymaking and what you’re doing at the State Department.
CASEY: Well, thank you, Irina. And thank you, Melineh, for your introduction. I know—I’ve looked at the preliminary list, and a lot of friends of our office and personal friends are on the call, and I look forward to our Q&A session.
I think the place for me to begin is that, at the State Department, we’re trying to celebrate World Refugee Day, which is today, and we’re trying to honor those who have fled violence and persecution, and try to highlight the work of people who have helped them on their journeys. As Melineh mentioned, we have more than 21 million refugees today, and these are people who’ve crossed international borders to flee persecution. And then, in addition, we face 41 million people who are internally displaced, meaning that they have fled their homes due to various internal forms of conflict, but they’re still in their own countries. And of these 62 million, half of them are children.
As you may know, the State Department funds the first 30 to 60 days of a refugee’s time in the United States. And that’s where my office began to pay attention—it’s the Office of Religion and Global Affairs—as we have built partnerships with literally hundreds of both international but also domestic faith-based groups around whatever work they happen to be doing.
So, in December of 2015, I decided to visit as many resettlement centers as I could around the country to sort of learn what was going on, so that my understanding of this issue transcended just paper and statistics. And in this time of visiting the six resettlement centers, I tried to put a highlight on the faith-based partners. And Melineh mentioned that we have nine implementing partners here in the refugee resettlement space, and six of those nine are faith-based agencies. So I was particularly keen to see what that work was like. And in the course of my six visits over the last few months, I’ve met over a hundred refugees, many of whom had literally just landed in the United States days before I met them. And I was eager to hear their stories and see what the process was like of trying to come to this country—to uproot oneself, and then to bring either just individual self or their entire families into the country.
And what I saw was what we call a “whole of society” society approach: the federal government puts in some money, often states provide social-service benefits, but it’s really the local community partnerships that have led to the successful integration of now 3.2 million refugees since 1975. And what I saw were police departments, school superintendents, an amazing array of houses of worship that come together and partner with these implementing agencies to try and smooth the transition of refugees coming into the United States.
The last four years, we have gotten the numbers up to 70,000 refugees per year. In the current fiscal year, we are shooting for a target of 85,000. And next year, the president and Congress have set a goal of resettling 100,000 refugees. So we’re expanding the capacity over the course of just two fiscal years by about 40 percent, and that means that the local partners are going to have to be performing even more services.
I’ve been to Jersey City, New Jersey; I’ve been to Dallas; I’ve been to Phoenix; I’ve been to Des Moines; I’ve been to Chicago; and I’ve been to Baltimore. And this amazing array of faith communities that have come together, not only to actually do the resettlement and take the public monies to do that, but then the implementing partners that Melineh was talking about are so crucial because the timespan of the federal government’s participation, at least in terms of the State Department, it’s only 30 to 90 days, and ends up—the Department of Health and Human Services provides support for a time period after that. But to successfully transition into eventually citizenship in the United States, obviously, it takes a much longer time period than that. And that’s where this amazing array of partners come together at the local level for the successful transition of refugees into American society.
And I think that’s, frankly, an untold story. And that’s one of the reasons we went ahead with this conversation today, is to try to shine a light on this success of 180 different cities where refugees are currently being resettled. And it’s really due to the partnership-making ability of these faith-based implementing partners with local religious communities, with local school districts, with local police departments. And we want to simply shine a light on that success here on World Refugee Day.
So let me stop there, and maybe we can, Irina, segue to questions.
FASKIANOS: That would be great. Thank you, Shaun.
Let’s open up now to the group for questions, comments, share with us what you’re doing in your communities.
OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)
And our first question will come from Victor Begg with Michigan Muslim Community Council.
BEGG: Good afternoon. My question is more related to the situation created by, for example, the governor in Michigan, who refused Syrian refugees. And the Muslim community here—and there is—there is a large, large Syrian community—they prepared to receive the refugees. They purchased land to build homes on, did pretty extensive plans to help, because the Syrian community is a very successful community, and this would only help the economy in Michigan. However, even the county, the Oakland County county executive, although the City of Pontiac was very welcoming, issued an order that no refugees be settled in Oakland County. So my question is, you know, all the good work that’s being done, first of all, we really haven’t received that many refugees, and those who are coming are—the community—the Muslim community is facing this problem. So is there a way to counter it? And are they—really, I mean, is it something that the state and the county can implement?
CASEY: So let me—let me try and take an answer—a stab at answering that. And again, I do not know the particulars there in Michigan or in Oakland County. But the refugee resettlement program is run by the federal government. Individual states do not have the capacity to prevent the implementation or the resettlement of refugees. Now, we do consult with state and local governments closely, because they, as I—as I said in my remarks, are often key players in the successful integration.
We’ve had a number of governors apparently make similar sorts of statements. You know, certainly in among the six cities I visited, several of them were located in states where governors had made similar kinds of pronouncements. But they do not possess the legal authority to shut down the federal refugee resettlement programs in their state.
So, you know, I would simply argue—again, without addressing any particular politician or any political statement by a politician—that it’s a fundamental part of American values to welcome refugees from all across the world. I think the key piece of misunderstanding often in some of these controversies has to do with the extent of the security background checks for refugees who do come to the United States. As Melineh mentioned, the background checks for refugees traveling to the United States are the most extensive security background checks for any traveler to the United States, and the Department of (Health and) Human Services is involved, the intelligence community is involved, the FBI is involved in that. And if a refugee cannot affirmatively prove their safety to the American population, they are not allowed to come into the country.
I think there have been a lot of misstatements and misportrayals of the degree of the security that goes with clearing a refugee into the United States. And it’s certainly a legitimate concern to ask the security questions, and certainly this administration is not going to lower our security standards to admit refugees here. We do not believe that the American values of welcome and hospitality are in contrast to providing security. We think that we can actually fulfill both, and I think we have a very strong record on that.
So, as far as I know, the federal government cannot be stopped in their resettlement efforts on the part of one sitting governor.
BEGG: Thank you.
FASKIANOS: Thank you.
KANOS: If I may just add, in the Detroit area, there is a group called SARN, Syrian American Refugee Network, and I think they have been very involved in helping out with the resettlement of Syrian refugees, and are working with the resettlement agencies there to help welcome these newcomers.
FASKIANOS: Great, thank you.
Let’s go to the next question.
OPERATOR: All right, our next question will come from James Mace with the University of Kent Canterbury.
MACE: Hello. I’m a specialist in the biblical theological aspects, so I’ll just stick with that regarding Christianity and refugee resettlement. And so what I see is that many legitimate a politically and a religiously universalizing approach through use of certain scriptures uncontextually applied, regarding the alien, for example, in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, and also in the New Testament. Likewise, we don’t see an erasure of all distinctions between types of humans, which the last 50 years of Samaritan studies has proven. And so, for example, Jesus does not treat the Samaritans as non-Israelites; in fact, they are Israelites. So we can’t use those versions to undiscriminatively universalize our approach.
So anyway, this becomes an issue because now, in light of the global genocide against Christianity, and we want to—you want to address how the churches are supposed to support all this. I would assert that, biblically, theologically, churches should not just uncritically support the U.N.’s resettlement program, which is more just humanist universalism, but should instead obey the divine command to prioritize loving assistance to fellow Christians. So, since there are so many fellow Christians that are being persecuted, why is there no option for churches to obey the divine command and prefer to help their suffering fellow Christians? That would be my proposal and my question. What would you then say about that?
CASEY: Well, let me try and take a stab at that. As a—as a trained theologian, I’m sorely tempted to check your exegesis and your theology. But, as a State Department official, I’m really not empowered to do that.
I do believe that the U.N. system follows a value that, while you may call it humanistic, I think it actually overlaps with the teachings of most every religious group I know, and that is to love and protect those who are most vulnerable, not the particular members of your own tribe first. So the priority of the U.S. government when we go into the refugee resettlement business is try to protect those who are indeed the most vulnerable and facing the deepest forms of persecution, which I should point out has included hundreds of thousands of Christians and other groups from the Middle East over the last decade or so.
So I think that, you know, each faith group has to make up its own mind about whether it wants to participate or not. I would just simply say that in terms of the American experience, there’s been an amazing outpouring of help on the part of Muslim communities, Jewish communities, Christian communities, and others to help whoever happens to be in need. I have not seen any particular movement towards simply wanting to support one’s own tribe who are—who are suffering in the refugee system, but rather sort of loving one’s neighbor as one’s self, which does actually strike me as more of a universal approach than the sort of the narrow sectarian view that the questioner suggested. I think that’s the beauty of the American experiment here, is we’ve set up a system that tries to protect the most vulnerable. And I think the overwhelming majority of houses of worship in the United States that have responded have responded out of a sense of duty to help those who are under the most duress.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question is from Jocelyne Cesari with Georgetown University.
CESARI: Hello. Thank you both for your presentation.
My question is about coordination of work with other countries on this question, especially of refugees from Syria and Iraq. You mentioned Germany. I wanted to ask to you both, in your respective fields, how much is devoted to coordination with the—for welcoming and helping refugees in Europe? It’s a big topic in Europe. Germany stands out pretty much alone. And so is there any plan from the American side, both from the agencies that deal with refugees, but also from the State Department, to try to coordinate efforts? Because the question is not nation by nation, but it’s really a global issue, especially when it comes to Syria and Iraq. Thank you.
CASEY: Melineh, do you want to take a stab at that, or—
KANO: I think it’s more for you. (Laughs.)
CASEY: OK, all right.
KANO: But from our perspective, I can say that, you know, we do not work internationally with anyone, other than once in a while receiving international guests, you know, to observe the U.S. refugee program.
So, Shaun, if you want to—
So, Jocelyne, I mean, the first thing to say is that the global refugee system is under the auspices of the U.N. So there was a—there is a United Nations Convention on Refugees that was promulgated, I think, in the early 1950s or late 1940s, I can never remember which. So the actual system itself is designed by international agreement, and it is run by U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. So, having said that—so I would say the entire system is—in fact, is a global international collaborative framework.
Now, what is the U.S. government trying to do with other countries? I think the first thing is we’re trying to address the political situation on the ground in Syria and Iraq, because ultimately that’s where at least a majority of the refugees are coming as a result of the conflict there. So, if we’re going to address it in the macro sense, we’ve got to try to keep finding some sort of political solution there. And my boss, Secretary Kerry, is spending a tremendous amount of time doing that. But in the meantime, we have to deal with the empirical reality of the—of the people who, in fact, have fled.
And let me tell you a couple things with respect to that. Certainly, we are communicating with Germany and with a number of other European host countries about best practices and lessons learned. So there is this sense that, while the United States does have expertise, and our faith-based communities do have expertise in resettling refugees—it’s what prior to the immediate crisis were the largest numbers; we were admitting more refugees than anyone else. That’s no longer the case because, you know, Germany and other countries are admitting more people. But we are trying to share lessons learned and best practices with them as they try to find analogous partners to ours here in the civil society space to do the actual resettlement. So there is a lot of government-to-government conversation going on.
The last thing I’ll say is that this September in the U.N. General Assembly week there will be a plenary session sponsored by President Obama, which we’re calling a leaders’ summit on how to focus specifically on doing more for refugees. And we are working with other governments to help make more concrete commitments, I think, along three lines of effort.
I mean, first of all, we’re trying to get more people to put more money into the humanitarian assistance systems. I mean, right now it’s woefully underfunded because of the increase in demand. So we’re asking more nations to regularly contribute to humanitarian appeal agencies.
Secondly, we’re also trying to leverage governments to make more concrete commitments to helping refugees become self-reliant. And we want to see a million more refugee children around the world enrolled in schools, and we want a million more refugee adults given the legal right to work.
And the last thing we’re trying to do is asking more countries to take in refugees through sustainable resettlement programs, either humanitarian visas or programs to work or study, where refugees can find really safe opportunities without having to resort to putting their lives in the hands of smugglers.
So we are pressing sort of a global system at the U.N. to begin to stand up and do more concrete things in collaboration with an expansion of our own efforts. That’s a great question.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Should we go on to the next question, or do you want to add something?
KANO: No, I think we’re—
FASKIANOS: OK, let’s go on. Great. Thanks.
OPERATOR: Our next question will come from Douglas Kmiec with Pepperdine University.
KMIEC: Good morning and—or good afternoon. Thank you to Shaun and Melineh for the presentation and for the work you’re doing.
My question is, with the influx of refugees, are more being settled now in urban areas rather than what used to be the case in terms of detention camps, number one? And are the needs of the refugees significantly different in the two locations? And how, if at all, are those different needs being met?
And I—you mentioned that there are—the first step or really the second step after registration is for the refugee to prove a bona fide fear of persecution. And of course, that’s correct. And not everyone—indeed, a great many fail in that effort. What, if anything, is being done for those who fail and the destinations of where they’re ending up, either in terms of host governments paying for their return to their point of origin, which may be unrealistic, or simply their disappearance into the general system?
KANO: Thank you for your question. I’ll attempt to answer.
So obviously, Chicago being an urban setting, you know, we are—our model fits the type of town. However, there are refugees who are resettled also in more rural areas or smaller towns. You know, there are pros and cons to both—there are pros and cons to both models. I think perhaps housing might be less expensive and easier to find in smaller areas. And, you know, of course, transportation, you know, is a different story because there isn’t public transportation; people have to have cars. And employment opportunities do exist but maybe more limited and people don’t have a chance to advance, and they may end up living all their life in the same factories, you know, or service industries—while in an urban setting, you know, life is a little more complicated, bigger cities, more expensive housing, yet refugees have more opportunities to improve themselves, improve their skills, advance with their job. And of course, integration, it’s a little easier because of the diversity of the bigger cities. So again, pros and cons, you know, about both resettlements.
In terms of, you know, what happens if a refugee is rejected after their initial interview, they do have an opportunity to appeal the decision. If they have additional, you know, proof of persecution, that can be added to their file and be presented again. However, if they are rejected altogether for United States, UNHCR will review their file and see if they would be good candidates to resettle in another country. But the reality is that most refugees cannot return home until the existing regimes that have caused them to leave home are still in (sic) power. And many refugees end up living generations in refugee camps, like the Somali refugees that have not been admitted for resettlement anywhere and have been in camps for over 30, 40 years now in Kenya. So that’s the reality of refugee resettlements.
CASEY: If I might add, Mr. Ambassador, let me say a couple things. When I was in Des Moines, Iowa, one of the things I noticed there, I think it was Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services actually runs what they call an incubator farm, because as you know, Des Moines is not rural per se, but one doesn’t have to go very far outside of Des Moines to find what most of Iowa is like, which is an agricultural state. So there you find one of our leading refugee resettlement partners seeing the agricultural skills of many of the refugees who are coming to Des Moines, and they’re actually then trying to train them on what the local economy and rural agricultural market is like and then help them leverage the agricultural farming skills they already possess to fit that market. So there are some very innovative things going on in some of our less urban resettlement centers trying to leverage the existing agricultural knowledge of so many of the refugees who are coming to some of the smaller, less urban cities.
Now, to your question on the international side, I think that really is the focus of what President Obama is trying to do at the U.N. General Assembly launch this fall is that we’re trying to get more access for refugee children to be enrolled in schools, and we’re trying to get more refugee adults the legal right to work where they are in camps or wherever they’re being held because there is, as Melina said, or Melineh said, that even though United States is increasing its capacity from 70,000 to 100,000 refugees per year over the course of just two years, that’s a drop in the bucket when you look at this system that currently has 20, 21 million refugee status folk in it. So we’re trying to help develop policies globally where children can have more access to education, which then could be a path out of a refugee camp at some point and also granting adults the right to work in the countries where they’re been displaced into. Those are one of the—those are two of the edges that I think we’re going to have to do a lot more work going down the road to improve the plight of refugees once they have fled but before they’re been resettled permanently to a place like the U.S.
FASKIANOS: Great. Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question will come from Curtis Hart with Weill Cornell Medical College.
HART: Good afternoon. I’m wondering—given my life experience, I’ve known numbers of people who’ve been through this experience in past generations after World War II, Vietnam. And I’m wondering, in the current framework, are there lessons of history that you’ve been able to draw from in your current work and your current efforts?
KANO: Good question, and I think that’s one of the reasons why with all the negative, you know, feelings that you hear in the media unfortunately about refugees, the public response is the exact opposite because I think everyone is relating the current talk of exclusion and not admitting people based on their religion or ethnicity perhaps to their own family backgrounds and the opportunity that they were given when they were forced to leave their country and the positive response. So I think it is a hundred percent related to people’s background and their own family experiences. And that’s why, you know, we have had a tremendous—at some point, we had to shut down on our website the application for volunteers because we were having 10 times as many people applying to become volunteers and help out with refugees than anywhere anytime in the past. And we didn’t have enough refugees to match with all the volunteers that were signing up. And I think that relates exactly to people’s individual backgrounds and histories.
CASEY: And I would add to that that what Melineh is describing in Chicago, which I saw when I was there visiting RefugeeOne, I saw in the other five cities I visited as well that there would be the occasional negative comment in the media by a political leader or civic leader, and the—but the response to the refugee centers themselves was an increase in both individuals but also religious communities reaching out and saying, how can we help you resettle Syrian refugees? What can our congregation do to help? And so when I went out on this trip, I expected to hear gloom and doom from the people who are running the resettlement centers, and really, quite frankly, the opposite: They were gratified at the public grassroots response being so positive and overwhelming.
I think the other historical lesson, which I heard from people who were doing the resettlement, was the affirmation of the role of trauma in the lives of these refugees. I spoke to one expert who described for me—and he’s actually a clinician himself, psychiatrist—and he was describing that—and he’s been working in the refugee space since I guess back in the Khmer Rouge Cambodia days—he said the kinds of trauma he was hearing and seeing that these Americans refugees—refugees to America had experienced was unparalleled, that the depth of the damage of trauma was the likes of which he had never seen in his professional career.
And so I think this is really one of the growing cutting edges now of help is thinking about how can local refugee resettlement centers provide access to professional psychological services for victims of trauma? Because there’s a very high percentage, particularly among Iraqi and Syrian refugees, of just experiencing horrific sorts of things, and the refugee resettlement folk themselves are wrestling with how do they apply the lessons of treating refugee trauma that they’ve learned from some of these historical example that the questioner put forward. So I think there’s a recognition that we have a particularly acute—several acute forms of trauma in this tranche of refugees that are coming. Are there lessons that we can draw on on how to successfully address that based on some of the other refugee experiences we’ve had.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: The next question comes from Daniel Pincus with the AJC. Mr. Pincus, your line is open. Make sure you’re not muted.
OK, we’ll move on to the next question from Daniel Sturm with United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
STURM: Hi. Thank you for the wonderful presentations and very good discussion. I want to just echo the statement of Melineh and Shaun regarding the sort of schizophrenic portrayal of refugee resettlement. On the one hand, we have this sort of negative portrayal in some news, in some media outlets. And on the other hand, we as a resettlement agency, United States Conference Catholic Bishops Migration and Refugee Services, we see locally a huge outpouring of volunteerism. And we are actually—we have a new national initiative that is faith-based. It’s called Parishes Organized to Welcome Refugees—in short, POWR. And so I’m seeing this on a local level reflected in our data that ever since, you know, the Syrian conflict became national headline news, we are seeing a huge outpouring of local volunteers trying to participate in sponsoring and helping refugees.
The point I want to make—I’m going to draw a little bit of a contrast between the populations. So I think it’s not really widely understood how refugees differ, to a degree, from other immigrant groups in that they do lack social networks, maybe more so than other immigrant groups. That’s something I have learned over the years to sort of better understand and focus on. And I’m sort of wondering if you have any thoughts on that sort of social capital theory. I am seeing our own approach as a contribution to bolstering the social networking. So it’s not just sort of matching refugees with mentors and parishioners and volunteers, but these are all future employers, future helpers, you know, supporters on their way to reclaiming their lives in America. So—and I think there is—I think there for the researchers on the call, I would—I would—I’ll be intrigued to see more national research on social networking and refugees and social capital. Those are my thoughts. Thank you.
KANO: Thank you, Daniel. I think that’s a very important point. As a matter of fact, when Shaun was visiting us in Chicago, that’s one of the things we discussed.
CASEY: That’s right.
KANO: What role—what role can State Department play in helping us tell the story, the success story of refugees, you know, after their initial resettlement period, how they go on to really become part of the fabric of United States and become employers and contributors and elected officials and so on.
And I think as part of our conversation, we realized that perhaps empowering, with the help of the State Department, the resettlement agencies to take these projects on would be easier than do it through a federal partner just because of, you know, perhaps bureaucracy.
But I think that’s a very important point, and I think no matter who ends up doing it, we should—we should focus nationally on doing it, and perhaps this is something that RC USA, the arm of the resettlement agency, should discuss it further with PRM and State Department.
CASEY: I would add to that—Daniel, I agree that—I think this is a huge question. One of the things I observed in several of the six cities were, for a lack of a better term, what I’ll call diaspora partners. You’ll find in some cities there will be concentrations of certain groups from certain countries, and there’ll be a synergy over time emerge as the resettlement becomes more and more successful and the communities become larger and larger. They then often circle back, and they volunteer to refugee resettlement centers. They have their own social networks that they’re able to invite new refugees from their countries of origin to join. And many times, it’s that socialization, it’s the social capital that comes from meeting a fellow refugee from your own country of origin who’s been there five years, who’s been there 10 years, helps speed up your own integration into a new social network by introducing you into a larger one.
So I think there’s—I’d certainly agree with your sentiment. This would be a rich research topic for social scientists to come in and to investigate, that successful path to citizenship may be aided and speeded up as a result of actually then being introduced into preexisting social networks. One story I think—actually, it was in Chicago. We met with a Muslim women’s center that had popped up, dealing specifically for Muslim women’s issues. And there was a man who presented himself to them. And they sort of politely said, well, you know, we actually—we try to focus on women’s issues. And it turns out he was Rohingya from Burma. He then actually established a Rohingya resource center for other refugees from Burma. And he built this pretty much on his own, among the handful of Rohingya folks that he had known in Chicago all through the refugee resettlement system. And now he’s got sort of a full-blown center that provides sort of specialty networks for fellow Rohingya who come in.
I think the last thing to say, and we haven’t really touched on this, is that the American Resettlement Center is really a work-based center. That is, we encourage, and the resettlement centers encourage refugees to find employment as quickly as possible. And the six centers we went to just had astonishingly high employment rates at the end of six months. And I think the underlying theory there is if one finds successful employment, that also speeds up one’s sort of being woven into the fabric of American society, which is, I think, a subset of sort of the social network argument, that if one begins through employment, even though it may well be at sort of the entry level of employment, that’s going to speed one’s acclimation into the existing social networks wherever it is that they have landed. And I think that that has worked. I think that’s a pretty successful system.
FASKIANOS: Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question will come from Christina Tobias-Nahi with IR USA.
TOBIAS-NAHI: Yes, thank you. This is Islamic Relief USA. And thank you, Mr. Casey, for talking about the VOLAGs that you’ve visited, especially those that are faith-based.
So our question is actually is there a need for additional VOLAGs, more than the nine that currently exist? And if so, what are the types of support for establishing a new VOLAGs? We’re partnered with many of those that are already in existing—quite closely with partner with them. And we know that in the past years there have been new ones that have formed and that have dissipated. So I guess just, again, whether there’s a need for more and what are the supports to help new, fledgling ones be strong in doing the case work and serving that need, if that need exists?
CASEY: That is a fabulous question that requires more knowledge than I currently possess. But let me say—I mean, can certainly raise that question with our Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration. So if you want to follow up afterwards, feel free to reach out to my office. You can go on our website and find an email address. Or actually your headquarters here, I don’t know if you’re based in Alexandria or not, but they know how to get ahold of us. We can certainly raise that question with the proper folk in the Bureau and get you an answer.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question will come from Nancy Ammerman with Boston University.
AMMERMAN: Good afternoon. My question is actually pipeline question. I’m wondering if you have any sense of how many refugees are currently in the pipeline waiting to be resettled in the U.S., and how many would want to be if they could.
CASEY: Nancy, I don’t know a precise answer to that. I can say the president has made a commitment this year, you know, as we’ve raised the goal to 85,000, he did also set a goal in that 85,000 of 10,000 of those being Syrians. I think at this point we’re somewhere over 2,000, so we’re not—you know, we’re not on an actual pace, although I’ve been assured that, I think, there’s going to be a surge because there are Syrians in our pipeline that we have a reasonable chance of meeting that 10,000.
I don’t hear—I think now as we—Nancy, as we move to the 100,000 goal, I think there are certainly going to be enough people in the pipeline to get to that. Now, that doesn’t answer directly your question of, well, how many—I guess you’re asking how many could we take, what’s the pipeline, what’s could it—what is its capacity? And I don’t have an answer for that. I simply don’t know. But I do think there is reasonable hope we’ll hit the 85,000 number this year, and that we’ll hit the 100,000 next year as well.
And frankly, I think one of the constraints there is the security process, that we’re not going to—we’re not going to shortcut that. We will continue to keep that as rigorous. And so I don’t know what the top end of the capacity would be. But I do think we’re—but I don’t think the president would have picked the 100,000 number if there wasn’t some reasonable expectation we could get there.
FASKIANOS: Great. Thank you. Next question.
OPERATOR: Yes, our next question will come from Aristotle Papanikolaou with Fordham University.
PAPANIKOLAOU: Hi. Shaun already touched upon this question and I didn’t quite know how to get out of the queue, so let me concretize it by asking a question about trauma. And studies have been coming out of—studies have been coming out of Germany indicating that children especially who have suffered from, as a result of refugee experiencing, are experiencing difficulties in learning, and these correspond with wider studies about those who experience in poor neighborhoods having difficulties in learning. So is there an awareness of that specific sort of effect of trauma on refugees, especially children? And are resources being made available? That’s it for me.
KANO: I can address this from our perspective. You know, we—up until five years ago, we did not have an in-house mental health program. We were referring our clients out to mainstream providers. But unfortunately, with, you know, funding dwindling we were dealing with long waiting lists and refugees were not getting served, you know, properly. So we took a leap of faith five years ago and started our own program. And now, honestly, I don’t know how we can ever do resettlement without having access—easy access to mental health services.
Obviously, you know, many more refugees now are coming from fresh trauma, Iraqis and Syrians. Our Rohingya cases have been abused for years wherever, you know, they have been. So they all have a need to access these services as quickly as possible. And two years ago we started mental health services for children. And what you are describing is very true. And, you know, we’re not talking about traditional western-style, you know, therapy of people, accessing talk therapy for years. But if, on average, even if they can have access to 12 to, you know, perhaps 16, 18 sessions of meeting with a therapist, it really makes a big difference in their resettlement process.
And we have noticed that children are having some difficulties in the classrooms and also difficulties, you know, relating to other children, and demonstrate their frustration by being, you know, overly violent with other kids. So again, our program is working very closely with the schools, with the teachers, helping them understand the background of these kids, and helping the kids, you know, through play therapy and such to cope with what they’ve been through, and give them the skill sets, you know, to adjust better.
CASEY: Let me add too, I saw in a couple of other cities, in addition to Chicago, where the practitioners have seen this. And they’ve seen the forms of trauma that really are quite unlike things that they had seen previously. And so I think the good news is that the system is supple in responses, so that the implementing partners who are actually doing the work see these kinds of needs, and they’re moving in their own sort of entrepreneurial ways to address it. I also think we have a very effective feedback loop into the State Department, because we convene annual conversations about lessons learned and shared best practices. So this is a case where, frankly, the grassroots is now going to make the bureaucracy smarter.
I am not aware of any unified trauma response on the part of the State Department. I think right now it really is happening at the grassroots level, which is how it should be. Now, I think the question will be raised here, is there—is there are more national approach that is needed. I don’t have answer to that question, but I do think all of the Refugee Resettlement Centers that I went to seeing the validity of the research that you referred to, and the need for it to be addressed in a more systematic fashion.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Let’s try to squeeze in one last question.
OPERATOR: OK. Our last question will come from Laura Alexander with the University of Virginia.
ALEXANDER: OK. Thank you. And thanks, Shaun and Melineh, for bringing your expertise to the conversation.
Shaun, you actually also kind of segued into my question, which is about refugees coming in and beginning to work. The experience that I had in refugee services, which is now over a decade old, was that the system was very good at getting folks into work. That it was not as good—because there was such a strong push to getting folks to work—not as good at allowing people to come in and have any kind of education or training that might allow them to find work that was better paid for one thing, but also a better fit, maybe, for their skills and interests.
So one question is just how you all think about that, whether you think there could be possibly changes in policies around whether people work or get an education. And then also, Melineh, if you could talk a little bit about whether faith partners or community partners might have a role to play in helping folks get—
KANO: I’m sorry, the last part of the question was cut off.
OPERATOR: If you could press—if you could press star-one one more time.
KANO: The role—if you can repeat the question about the role—the role of—
OPERATOR: OK, here she comes.
FASKIANOS: Here she comes. She got cut off.
ALEXANDER: The last part was just asking whether there were local partners in particular faiths, partners within local communities that might be helpful in some way, given the current system, to help refugees find training that might lead to work that really fits their skills and interests well.
KANO: Mmm hmm. Yes. Unfortunately, early employment is still a goal of the resettlement program. And I do say unfortunately because I think we do rush refugees through, and earned income is a big priority because we want them to get off welfare and to self-sufficient and independent as quickly as possible, which for most instances means, you know, entry-level jobs and minimum wage. And then it makes it difficult, you know, for families to try.
However, as an agency, because we have been in existence for a long time and we have been able to build, you know, community partnerships and raise, you know, resources through foundations and private donors, we have supplemental programs that help us go beyond the initial core services of just, you know, survival, job placement. So we have classes for clients to continue attended even after they are placed in a job. We help them with job upgrades and, as much as possible, we help our refugee clients to get on a career path, even by, you know, partnering with community colleges and things like that.
Faith-based partners play a big role in every aspect of a client’s life, including introducing them to better opportunities and helping sometimes, you know, pay for a vocational training program or things like that, if there are no loans available to them. But I don’t—from my perspective, this is a conversation we’ve been having with our federal partners for a long time. And I don’t see this requirement to change. I think early employment will always be, you know, one of the outcomes that we will be—you know, our performance will be based on.
FASKIANOS: Shaun, you get the final word. And it would be great if you could also point us to a few websites where we can get more information.
CASEY: Sure. I really don’t have anything to add to that last question. But let me suggest two places where people can go to learn more about how they might get involved or get more information. One is www.AidRefugees—all one word—dot-gov. It’s A-I-D-R-E-F-U-G-double E-S. And the other website to go to is www.State.gov/RefugeeResponse—all one word.
FASKIANOS: Great. I am sorry that we couldn’t get to everybody’s questions and comments, but we are out of time. So Shaun Casey and Melineh Kano, thank you very much for being with us today, and sharing with us the work that you are doing—the terrific work that you are doing. And here is to World Refugee Day.
I want to commend to you two Twitter accounts. You can follow Shaun on Twitter at @SpecialRepCasey, and Melineh’s organization at @Refugee_One. So again, you should follow them there. Go to their websites for more information, and the two that Shaun just shared with us. And we also encourage you to follow our Religion and Foreign Initiative at @CFR_Religion for announcements about upcoming events and information, et cetera.
So thank you all, again, for being with us today. And thank you, Shaun and Melineh.