Meeting Refugees Changed My Life, Catholic Charities CEO says
At the March meeting, Heather Reynolds, Catholic Charlies of Fort Worth chief executive officer, explained the difficult road refugees travel to come to the United States and how heavily scrutinized they are before entering the nation. She also decried the politicization of refugees, who are among the most scrutinized immigrants to enter the United States.
“Refugees often wait as long as four years and go through 13 distinct steps, including interviews, physical exams, background checks, before being approved for resettlement,” Reynolds said. “Our case workers meet them at the airport and help them through the adjustment process. They are so grateful for the chance to be here.”
Reynolds estimates close to 700 refugees live in Texas from many nations. “If everyone I met was like the refugees I know, we could end poverty tomorrow,” she said.
An estimated 65.3 million people have been forced out of their homes because they are being persecuted due to their religion, ethnicity, or political opinion. According to U.S. law, a refugee is a person who is unable or unwilling to return to his or her home country because of a “well-founded fear of persecution” due to race, membership in a particular social group, political opinion, religion, or national origin.”
In 1958, the United States began admitting 400,000 refugees persecuted by Communist regimes. In the 1960s, the United States admitted Cubans fleeing Fidel Castro’s revolution. In 1975, following the Vietnam War, Catholic Charities formed a Refugee Resettlement Committee to deal with influx of Vietnamese. Federal assistance for resettlement of these refugees also became available. Annual admissions to the United States ranged from a high of 207,000 in 1980 to a low of 22,000 in 2002.
“Immigrants are not refugees,” Reynolds said. “The confusion between the two began with the Paris attack when the two terms merged.”
Nine organizations led by Catholic Charities resettle refugees in the Fort Worth area. Texas is second to California in the settlement of refugees. The United Nations coordinates settlement of refugees and supervises an intensive review of individuals who have been displaced before they are allowed to leave their refugee camps or cities.
“Less than 1 percent of those who apply are allowed in the United States,” Reynolds said. Reynolds added that 96 percent of refugees reach self-sufficiency within six months of arriving in Texas.
Regarding recent reactions to refugees by the national and state governments, Reynolds said settlements continued after the state of Texas refused federal funds provided to support refugee resettlement. Four regions in the United States continued to receive federal funds because refugee resettlement is a federal process. “Even now when the federal government stopped refugees from entering the United States from some countries, the funds continue to be used to help refugees who are here.”
Reynolds was accompanied by a refugee, Jimmy Alphonce, who emigrated from the Congo after four years in a refugee camp. His tragic story began when his parents were murdered and his home burned, leaving him and his brother orphaned. “The Congo was a terrible place – people murdered every day, shootings every day,” Alphonce said. “The darkest day of my life was when my parents died.”
Alphonce is now self-sufficient, but he originally was settled with a foster family. He remained with them until he graduated from high school. Alphonce completed his college degree at UT Dallas. “When I arrived, I told my case workers: ‘Show me how to fish!’. I wanted to learn how to survive,” he said.