Jean Mucyurabuhoro and Elisabeth Nyirankumiriz, who escaped ethnic violence in eastern Congo and lived in a refugee camp for 23 years, are pictured with their grandchildren. Catholic Charities recently helped them rebuild their life in Portland. Though the number of refugees admitted into the United States drastically declined over the past four years, Catholic Charities found new ways to aid refugees and continue welcoming those it could. (Courtesy Catholic Charities)
Jean Mucyurabuhoro and Elisabeth Nyirankumiriz, who escaped ethnic violence in eastern Congo and lived in a refugee camp for 23 years, are pictured with their grandchildren. Catholic Charities recently helped them rebuild their life in Portland. Though the number of refugees admitted into the United States drastically declined over the past four years, Catholic Charities found new ways to aid refugees and continue welcoming those it could. (Courtesy Catholic Charities)

No matter how many times Matthew Westerbeck stands in the Portland International Airport and greets a refugee family, he always finds it an emotionally profound experience.

“Seeing families reunited and welcoming people who have gone through so much — it’s an incredible moment,” said Westerbeck, director of Catholic Charities’ refugee services.

Such moments grew far less frequent over the past four years as President Donald Trump steadily lowered the annual cap on refugees. In 2016 President Barack Obama said 110,000 should be permitted, but by the current fiscal year Trump had reduced that to 15,000, a record-breaking low.

Trump administration officials gave different reasons for the caps and cuts to funding, including national security and protecting American jobs.

On Feb. 4, President Joe Biden said he would raise the annual number of refugees allowed to 125,000 for the new fiscal year.

Staff of resettlement agencies nationwide are “breathing a sigh of relief that we are going to be able to do this work and not have it torn down anymore,” said Westerbeck. “It’s exciting that our country will again embrace its history of welcoming the most vulnerable.”

Now Westerbeck and others in the gutted resettlement system, weakened further by the pandemic, are scrambling to prepare for the increase.

“Welcoming families and helping them rebuild their lives takes a lot of time and is energy-intensive,” Westerbeck said. “I think the current administration recognizes that and the need for agencies to rebuild.”

Refugees are a special class of migrants who under international law deserve specific protection by their host country. Over the past decade, the number of people forced to flee their homes has nearly doubled, according to a United Nations report.

In the United States federal funds for resettlement agencies are linked to the number of newly arrived refugees an agency supports. With fewer refugees to aid and the subsequent lack of funding, approximately 100 offices — a third of those nationwide — either closed entirely or suspended their refugee resettlement program, according to a Refugee Council USA report released in 2019.

In 2016, Catholic Charities’ helped about 590 new arrivals; last year it resettled 66. The agency was forced to reduce staff.

Founded during World War II, the nonprofit is one of just three resettlement agencies in the state. Its work is derived from Christ’s teaching and life of mercy.

“By helping to resettle the most vulnerable, we are living out our Christian faith as Jesus has challenged us to do,” said Archbishop José Gómez, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in his critique of the cap announced last October.

Innovative programs, partnerships

With fewer new families arriving, Catholic Charities adapted to help more established residents in new ways.

Through its employment services program the agency connected individuals to higher paid jobs and served as a bridge to employers. Then in 2019, state legislators passed a bill that stabilized the floundering refugee resettlement programs and enabled Catholic Charities to provide extended case management.

This extended support ended up fulfilling an acute need as the pandemic left many refugees, like the broader population, jobless.

Catholic Charities served as a third party to file for unemployment insurance and helped around 80 families through the worst stretch of job losses.

“For the first half of the pandemic, information about unemployment was impenetrable for the non-English speaker,” said Westerbeck. “Being able to help is an example of how having a longer case management model allows agencies to be there for refugees years down the road when something unexpected occurs.”

Since the economy has picked up, most of those who lost jobs have been rehired, he said.

Catholic Charities also has continued its partnership with Salem For Refugees, a community-based organization in Oregon’s capital city.

About five years ago, due to rising housing costs in the Portland region, Catholic Charities wanted to expand resettlement to other areas. When Salem was selected, local businesses, nonprofits and community members came together to form “a very unique, collaborative and comprehensive approach to helping families,” said Westerbeck, noting that the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement recently recognized the innovative partnership.

Salem For Refugees works closely with Catholic Charities to train volunteers who aid refugees. People are paired with families and “walk alongside them as friends and guides that first year,” said Anya Holcomb, who co-directs the organization with her husband. Teams help families with everything from how to ride the bus to how to keep a budget. She called Catholic Charities “an incredible help and support.”

It is powerful work, added Holcomb. “Many of these families we aid have young kids, they have lived in their homes for generations, have jobs, friends and family members and then are forced to flee for their lives because everything is destroyed.”

Along with Catholic Charities’ partnerships with organizations such as Salem For Refugees, local volunteers will be important as the number of refugees increases, said Westerbeck. Volunteers show up with smiles and signs at the airport, then help navigate daily life — grocery shopping, schoolwork, “all the hundreds of things we do without thinking,” he said.

Volunteers and staff with Catholic Charities of Oregon and Salem For Refugees welcome a family at Portland International Airport. (Courtesy Salem For Refugees)

Essential support

Younus Sultan was among the refugees able to resettle in Oregon in 2018.

Sultan is Rohingya, part of a Muslim ethnic minority from Myanmar’s western Rakhine state. In 2012 he fled the Southeast Asian nation with his wife and infant child.

The Rohingya people have faced decades of systematic discrimination, statelessness and targeted violence. Since 2017 an estimated 745,000 Rohingya have escaped to a refugee settlement in Bangladesh after their villages were burned, families separated and killed, and women and girls raped.

“Police were searching everywhere for families like mine; we had to leave,” said 43-year-old Sultan through an interpreter. The family traveled to Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia and spent time on islands in the Indian and Pacific oceans before arriving in the United States.

Catholic Charities worked with Sultan to find him a job with a lighting company and “helps with all these essential things in my life,” he said. “They help with official documents, food assistance, education.”

Sultan now has three children, who currently attend school online during the pandemic. He said his kids are thriving.

The persecution of the Rohingya meant Sultan was unable to attend school as a child, and he dreams of furthering his education. As he takes incremental steps to build his life, “Catholic Charities is there for us,” he said.

“If I don’t understand something, they explain it to us. If I still don’t understand, they send someone to help me. Catholic Charities’ support is very critical. I’m so grateful for my life here and for them.”

 

How to help

To find out ways to support refugee families in Oregon as a volunteer, email refugee@ccoregon.org.