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TMcDuffee Headshot 2017.jpg Tabitha McDuffee, Founder,

Historically, the United States has resettled more refugees per year than any other country. Since the Refugee Act was passed in 1980, millions of refugees from dozens of countries have made their homes in our states, cities, and towns. This article briefly addresses the following frequently asked questions about refugees in America.

Where are they?

How do they get here?

Where do they come from?

Why do they come?

What do they look like?

What do they do?

How can I help?

Where Are They?

Refugees come to America from all over the world, seeking safety and relief from persecution of various kinds. They are resettled in the US by the US Office of Refugee Resettlement and other nonprofit organizations that partner with the US government. Refugees live in every major city in America as well as many smaller communities. In the 2012 fiscal year alone, the Office of Refugee Resettlement reported that 58,238 refugees arrived in the US from 85 different countries. They were resettled in every state.

Refugees have no control over where they are resettled within the US, nor can they choose to be sent to the US at all (many refugees are also settled in Canada, Australia, and various European countries). However, many refugees already have family members who live in the US, so the Office of Refugee Resettlement does its best to resettle new refugees in the same place as their family members. Once refugees arrive in the US, they receive very limited financial support from the US government for the first eight months they are here. After that, they may apply for general assistance programs like any other Americans, or they must find employment.

How Do They Get Here?

The short answer to this question is, by plane. However, the long answer will provide far more insight into the background of most refugees in America. Refugees go through an extensive vetting process before finally stepping on an international flight to America. The UNHCR facilitates the resettlement application process while refugees are still in refugee camps. The UNHCR only refers refugees for resettlement if all attempts to help the refugee return home or integrate into their current country of refuge fail. Even then, less than 1% of refugees get the opportunity to resettle to a third country.

After the UNHCR refers a particular refugee or refugee family to the US for resettlement, they begin a second application process with the US government. The US Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP) is responsible for this part of the process, which involves a mountain of paperwork, various background checks, and multiple in-person interviews.

If accepted, the refugee is matched with an American resettlement organization and must go through medical screening, security screening, and a brief cultural orientation before traveling to the US. Once in the US, refugee children must be enrolled in school, all refugees must apply for a social security number, and additional medical screening and cultural orientation takes place. From start to finish, this process could take up to three or four years. Certain things can complicate and extend the process. For example, if a refugee family has a new baby during the process, they must start everything over in order to include the new child in the application.

For more detailed information on this process, you can visit the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants FAQ page. The UNHCR also has information available on their website.

Why Do They Come?

Refugees in America are here for several reasons. Individuals can gain status as refugees for five different reasons, all of which involve persecution.

  1. Individuals may be persecuted on the basis of their race and therefore qualify as refugees. A harrowing example of this kind of persecution is the Rwandan genocide.
  2. Individuals may also be persecuted on the basis of their religion. In Pakistan, a particular sect of Islam (called Ahmadiyya) has been declared un-Islamic and in Syria Christians and Yazidis have been targeted by ISIS.
  3. Individuals may be persecuted on the basis of their nationality, a distinction broader than race and based on one’s country of origin.
  4. Individuals may be persecuted on the basis of their political opinions. These individuals often have views that differ significantly from accepted government policies. For example, most refugees coming from Communist countries qualify under this category of persecution.
  5. Finally, individuals may be persecuted on the basis of their involvement in a particular social group. While this category is the most difficult to define, an increasing number of refugees in this category have been persecuted on the basis of their gender or sexual orientation. Women in many other countries are treated as material possessions and are forced to undergo female genital mutilation (also called female circumcision). Individuals who practice, or desire to practice a homosexual lifestyle are also severely persecuted in many other parts of the world and can qualify for refugee status under this category.

Any of these five grounds may be the reason why a refugee is resettled in the US. It is a commonly believed fallacy that natural disaster is also a valid reason for gaining refugee status. Natural disasters (earthquakes, tsunamis, famines, etc.) are a common reason for relief organizations to offer assistance to displaced and hurting people, but cannot legally be the reason for those individuals to be resettled in a new home.

What Do They Look Like?

Many refugees assimilate quickly into American culture and western styles of dress, especially those who arrived as children. Therefore, refugees and former refugees may look very similar to other Americans, aside from perhaps an accent or the color of their skin. America is so diverse that it is quite easy to blend in.

On the other hand, some refugees retain their national style of dress when they resettle in the US. Many of these refugees are adherents of Islam or other faiths and do so for religious reasons. One cannot, however, assume that because a man is wearing a turban or a woman is wearing a hijab that he or she is a refugee. He or she could be a first, second, or even third generation immigrant. Refugees can come from almost any country or ethnic background and as a result, may choose to dress in any number of ways.

What Do They Do?

Refugees in America do many of the same things that you and I do. They cook, clean their homes, go grocery shopping, take their children to school, and visit their friends. On a day-to-day basis, refugees are not very different from anyone else. However, there are some things that refugees do, and activities that they engage in that are unique to them.

Refugees spend a great deal of their time during their first few years in America in English classes. These classes are usually free to refugees or significantly discounted. Learning English is a prerequisite to finding a job, so these classes are important for refugees to provide for themselves and their families. After a refugee becomes sufficiently proficient in English, they can begin to search for a job. Fellow refugees or resettlement agencies help with the job search process. Common occupations for refugees are cab drivers, truck drivers, warehouse workers, manufacturing, agricultural work, and janitorial services.  In fact, many refugees find jobs in these professions after only three or four months in the US because they don’t require high levels of English. Many refugees also choose to return to school during the evenings in order to receive their GED. Of those who receive their GED as adults, a portion continues on to college.

How Can I Help?

Refugees in America have countless needs, from practicing English and learning to drive to paying bills and grocery shopping. There are endless practical ways that an American friend can ease a refugee family’s transition to the United States. Before you can help a refugee, though, you have to meet one! If you visit our How to Serve page, you will find links that can help you get into contact with refugees and immigrants in your town or city. Once you make friends with a refugee in need of assistance, the following list can give you a few ideas to decide how you will spend your time together. Of course, remember that the best way to find out what your refugee friend needs is to ask them yourself!

  • Practice English. Devote lots of time to conversation and make sure that you speak slowly and a bit more clearly than you would otherwise. Go to appointments with them. If a refugee has a doctor’s appointment or any other formal meeting, it often helps to have a fluent English-speaking friend along. If they do not have their driver’s license yet, they may also need someone to transport them to meetings.
  • Job search. Help refugees who are semi-fluent in English look for a job. Write a reference for them, help them fill out their application and resume and help them prepare for an interview by asking them some sample questions.
  • Citizenship. If your friend has been here for 5 years or longer and wants to become a US citizen, help them study for the citizenship test.
  • Babysit. Watch your friend’s children for a few hours so that she can cook, do laundry or grocery shop.
  • Take them sightseeing. Be tourists for a day and take your friends to see the sights in your city. Do your friends come from a landlocked country? Take them to the beach or a nearby lake. Do your friends come from the desert? Take them to the mountains. Take them ice skating or do something else fun and active.
  • Cook together. Ask them to teach you how to make their favorite food, and then teach them how to make yours.
  • History. Have a day where you give each other history lessons on your own countries and talk about why you appreciate the country you were born in.
  • The movies. Take your friends to a movie or to a play. This is a great way to both practice their English listening skills and learn more about American culture.
  • Games. Play board games together – the more educational, the better! Games like Catchphrase and Taboo will stretch English skills as well.

These are just a few ideas. There are endless possibilities when it comes to having fun together and helping your refugee friends in a practical way. Use your imagination and do what makes the most sense for your particular situation. Your friendship is the greatest encouragement you can give to a refugee.

I hope answering these questions about refugees in America all in one place has been helpful for you. Please share this with your friends, family, or others who may be asking these questions as well.

Memphis immigration Project exists to engage issues of Immigration from a biblical perspective.


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