Refugees determined to make it

Posted March 18, 2010, at 7:07 p.m.

The waiting room of the Baltimore Resettlement Center can be a hectic, busy place — even at 8:30 in the morning. Refugees begin to fill the center long before opening hours. Some wait patiently, holding children on their laps. Others are busy using the public phones and computers.

People of all ages and races gather in the waiting room, some dressed in clothes markedly foreign, others wearing plain jeans and T-shirts. Nearly every person who walks in from the street is greeted by the room at large, quietly, as though they have just entered into a somewhat subdued party or family gathering.

I am struck by how similar the word for “Mommy” sounds in almost every language — maybe it’s just the universality of the delivery — and the reassuring, shhshing sound that mothers make to restless, wiggling children.

Many people don’t realize what the term “refugee” really means. It’s widely overused, giving the impression that anyone who is fleeing war, disaster, or even poverty can be called a “refugee.” In reality, the 1951 Refugee Convention delineates very specific qualifications to legally be considered a refugee. First, you must be able to prove a well-founded fear of personal persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group; second, having fled your country, you must be unable to return as a result of this threat. You can’t simply be fleeing general violence or a struggling economy. Technically speaking, for example, Haitians whose homes and lives have just been destroyed by the January earthquake are not “refugees.”

To make a long story short, by the time people are granted refugee status, they’ve been through an awful lot — both in terms of personal trauma, fear and persecution, and in terms of bureaucratic wrangling. Most of the refugees arriving in the U.S. have been living in refugee camps in crowded, difficult conditions, for anywhere from six years to 18 years or longer.

In the last six months, 251 refugees, the majority coming from Bhutan, Myanmar, Iraq and Eritrea, have been resettled by the International Rescue Committee in Baltimore. The IRC, a global organization dedicated to providing sanctuary for refugees, plays a big part in that resettlement, helping refugees get their feet under them and become self-sufficient. The IRC is one of several city and nonprofit agencies that work in partnership at the Baltimore Resettlement Center — a unique program designed to foster close work and communications between the organizations that provide refugee and asylee support. Funded through the State Refugee Coordinator’s office, Baltimore’s Resettlement Center makes close allies of groups such as the Lutheran Social Services of the National Capital Area, Baltimore City Community Colleges, the Baltimore Department of Social Services and the IRC.

Robert Warwick, the IRC’s executive director in Baltimore, has been working with the organization for 11 years. A tall, sturdy man with square shoulders, Warwick’s commitment to this work is clear to me within minutes. “It’s more than just a job,” he says. In the late 1980s, Warwick left a job in architecture to join the Peace Corps. “They sent me to Malawi for 3½ years,” he said, “and I guess in a way, I’ve never really left Africa since then — not really.” Warwick has served as the IRC’s country director for several African countries, and in 1992 he founded and continues to oversee the Malawi Girls Education Program.

Warwick and I discuss the challenges facing refugees during resettlement, particularly the “refugee crisis” that peaked across that nation last summer. In a perfect storm of events — inadequate funding for resettlement, an increase in refugees, and the U.S. recession — it became clear that not only were refugees having a hard time finding jobs and becoming independent, many actually faced homelessness. A rash of impending evictions served as a wake-up call, grabbing the nation’s attention. On New Year’s Day this year, the federal government finally increased funding for refugee resettlement, funding which had been frozen for nearly a decade.

“Many of our refugees have been in Burmese and Bhutanese refugee camps for 20 years, often raising their children there, in squalid conditions,” Warwick told me. “They find out they’ve been chosen for resettlement, it’s a huge deal; and they’re resettled at last, only to suddenly face homelessness? Washington recognized that we simply can’t have refugees living on the streets.”

Helping refugees is no charity act. Since the Refugee Convention became international law, countries are obligated to recognize individuals who meet the legal definition of a “refugee”— contrary to the implication of the phrase “granting refugee status.” This responsibility is particularly clear with the recent influx of Iraqi refu-gees; many fled death threats directly linked to their association with American forces and personnel in Iraq. Still, of all of the refugees around the world, the U.S. resettles only less than half of 1 percent.

Today, Warwick is happy to report that of newly arriving refugees over the last year, IRC has not had a single eviction. But getting by is still a challenge. “It used to be that it took two-three months to find [a refugee] a job — entry level, most often in the service industry. Now, it’s taking six-eight months and even longer,” he said. Most haven’t been working for a decade because they’ve been in a refugee camp; combine that with often low-level English, and finding a job is a major challenge.

Leaving the Baltimore Resettlement Center, I take one last look around the waiting room. It must be hard relocating, starting your life over, only to find still more obstacles to overcome. I’m sure there are times of frustration and despair. But what I see on the faces of everyone here today is a whole lot of determination, strength and hope.

Meg Adams, who grew up in Holden and graduated from John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor and Vassar College in New York, shares her experiences with readers each Friday. She may be reached at meg@margaret-adams.com

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