Fr. Dave Zegar, pastor of St. Andrew Parish in Northeast Portland, stands with a group of community leaders and refugees June 10 on the steps of St. Andrew. Fr. Zegar urged Oregonians to contact their legislators to vote in favor of Oregon House Bill 2508. Salome Nanyenga, wearing a yellow shirt, stands behind him.
Fr. Dave Zegar, pastor of St. Andrew Parish in Northeast Portland, stands with a group of community leaders and refugees June 10 on the steps of St. Andrew. Fr. Zegar urged Oregonians to contact their legislators to vote in favor of Oregon House Bill 2508. Salome Nanyenga, wearing a yellow shirt, stands behind him.
Father Dave Zegar, pastor of St. Andrew Parish in Northeast Portland, and other community leaders held a press conference this morning to urge people to contact their legislators about Oregon House Bill 2508, also known as the Refugees Welcome Act.

The bill is sponsored by Rep. Carla Piluso, a member of St. Clare Parish, who represents Gresham. She describes the bill on her website, as providing “funding to support voluntary resettlement agencies, who do important work to help refugee Oregonians get on the path to stability.”

The bill is needed because federal funding for refugee services has been slashed. HB2508 would provide $4.5 million over two years to fund services for refugees already settled in Oregon plus those who may be arriving.

Most of the speakers at the conference were refugees.

Salome Nanyenga said, “You need help to navigate the system.” Her family has been successful, she said, only because of the intense case management they have received. “No one can do this alone.”

Nanynga, who is originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo and now works at Africa House, said a refugee’s previous education doesn’t matter. “The system here is so different,” she said, adding that refugees arrive with a lot of hope but also a lot of trauma.

Saud Elmi, a refugee from Somalia, spoke about her struggles to raise her five children, all of them students in public schools. “We can only do this if we work together,” Elmi said.

Francis Kham, director of the Zomi Catholic Community Portland and on the board of directors at Catholic Charities, asked Oregonians to support the bill “so we can be lifelong contributors.”

Ali Sarhan, a refugee from Iraq, said his family would not have made it without the services they received. Now his wife is a teacher, he is a case manager to other refugees, and his daughter, one of four children, is at college.

Matthew Westerbeck, program manager for Catholic Charities Oregon’s refugee services, emphasized how much refugees contribute to Oregon communities. “We need to step forward to stabilize this funding,” he said.

While most of the speakers addressed the humanitarian imperative of helping refugees, informational placards gave statistics on the economics. The numbers showed that refugees are good for the economy, paying back in taxes far more than the help they receive during their first years in the state.

Catholic Charities has helped about 600 refugees annually in recent years. Westerbeck expects to resettle a maximum of 140 this year.

As a whole, the United States is likely to welcome the fewest number of refugees — just 20,000 — since the resettlement program was founded in 1980. That resettlement program has historically funded nine agencies nationwide to help refugees find their way in their new homes. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has been one of the nine. The USCCB has then worked with local Catholic Charities like the one in Oregon.

Catholic Charities welcomes refugees at the airport and helps them find housing, get their utilities turned on, register their children for school, get health care and other basics.

Under House Bill 2508, the Oregon Department of Human Services will award the grants, keeping the doors open at Catholic Charities’ resettlement offices — where half the staff has already been let go.

Oregonians are urged to contact their legislators and urge them to vote yes on House Bill 2508, in order to support Oregon’s refugee community.

New York and Utah have also moved to shore up funding for the refugees in those states.