Matthew Westerbeck is program manager for refugee services at Catholic Charities.
Matthew Westerbeck is program manager for refugee services at Catholic Charities.

As federal spending cuts and cautious policy mean that fewer refugees are coming to Oregon, Catholic Charities has extended its work with refugees who are already here.

In 2016, the agency was settling 600 refugees annually. This year, the number will reach about 175. More than half the staff had to be let go, and the strategy had to change.

“We continue to live in a space of uncertainty around federal funding,” said Matthew Westerbeck, program manager for refugee services at Catholic Charities. “No one knows what will be the status starting in October.”

Since the 1940s, Catholic Charities has helped refugees in the initial phases of arrival and settlement in the state — including housing, furniture and food, plus classes in English and culture. As arrivals have dropped, the agency’s caseworkers and managers rued the reduction but grasped an opportunity.

Government support for refugees includes a $1,000 welcome payment plus certain kinds of support for eight months. Catholic Charities is ramping up at that point. The focus now is helping the adults train for work and land good positions.

“Very few refugees can walk off a plane and get a job in a few weeks,” Westerbeck said.

Refugees come from all sorts of circumstances. Some are doctors and lawyers while others are journalists or housecleaners. But none of them can jump right into work in the United States, says James Howell, director of development for Catholic Charities of Oregon. There are many steps and caseworkers can smooth the path.

Westerbeck said the new approach has been gratifying, since workers follow refugees farther along the path to self-sufficiency. “It helps with stability to have employment services,” he said. “It’s much more holistic.”

Catholic Charities, for example, now can help refugees get recertified in professions they practiced overseas. 

The International Refugee Center of Oregon had offered employment services, but cut them 18 months ago, leaving a gap Catholic Charities has filled. “There were real needs not being met,” said Howell. “It was a painful transition. It was also an opportunity for us to serve the community in a new way.”

In addition to hiring an employment specialist, Catholic Charities can refer refugees to its own departments for emotional counseling and legal aid.

Before he joined the staff, Westerbeck volunteered with Catholic Charities, assisting a large refugee family. He’d been inspired by his own sense of bewilderment after moving to Japan.

Refugees are wrung out by the time they get to Oregon, he said. They have faced trauma not only in the situation that caused them to flee in the first place, but at overcrowded camps and then during the process of adjusting to U.S. culture. 

The United States took in 85,000 refugees two years ago, about 45 percent of the world’s refugees who were resettled. This year, it will be about 20,000. As the United States welcomes fewer people, the number of refugees in the world has increased by about 500,000 in the last year to 23.5 million.     

“We are really not living up to our obligations to help those individuals,” Westerbeck said.

Every day, refugees already in Oregon come to Catholic Charities to check on the status of relatives seeking asylum in the United States. Disappointment is general.

“It’s been really challenging to serve refugees,” said Kat Kelly, director of the Pope Francis Center for Justice and Charity in Portland. “These are people in need who just want to survive. We need to find ways to treat them with human dignity.” Kelly points out that the Holy Family were refugees.  

She criticizes federal efforts to save money by slashing the nation’s refugee budget. 

“If we are not spending dollars on humans lives, it does not matter where it goes,” Kelly said. “If it takes some dollars to keep a child from being massacred by a machete, I’d spend them.”

Refugee accomplishment high

Comparing the 1.1 million refugees who arrived between 1987 and 2016 with others living in the country:

• Refugees’ labor force participation (68 percent) and employment rates (64 percent) exceed those of the total U.S. population (63 and 60 percent respectively).

• Large numbers of refugees (10 percent) are self-employed and, in this and other ways, job creators, compared to 9 percent for the total U.S. population.

• Refugees’ median personal income ($20,000) equals that of non-refugees and exceeds the income of the foreign born overall ($18,700).

• Refugees are more likely to be skilled workers (38 percent) than non-refugees (33 percent) or the foreign born (35 percent).

• Refugees use food stamps and Medicaid at higher rates than non-refugees, the foreign born, and the total U.S. population. However, their public benefit usage declines significantly over time.

— Source: Center for Migration Studies report commissioned by Catholic Charities USA, Catholic Relief Services, and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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