As I look out my office window at the Hudson River with its two-way currents, flashy speedboats and lonely barges, I ponder my to-do lists, reports to send out, forms to pilot and matrixes to create. Suddenly an email comes in from a CWS affiliate colleague at Kentucky Refugee Ministries (KRM), and with it, some delightful photos of refugee children from Burma who have been resettled in Louisville, Kentucky. My colleague states that the children and parents were very excited about the youth program the children attended this summer.
A 7-year old boy wears a football all star t-shirt and sports well-styled hair. His eyes beam with satisfaction as he holds a small American flag in one hand and a chocolate cupcake in the other. Behind him, I can see the gently rolling hills of the Ohio River Valley, and imagine the rope swings, cicadas and fireflies which made up my youth in southern Ohio. I wonder what characterized this boy’s childhood prior to arriving in the U.S. – hunger? Disease? Persecution due to his family’s religion?
In the other photo, his sister rides the bus with her teacher in an affectionate embrace. A bright blue Hello Kitty headband crowns her head, and a string of white plastic beads accentuate her tie-dye t-shirt with “Keep Louisville Global!” imprinted on it. Her teacher wears the same t-shirt. Together they make up a sort of human version of the yin yang idea, highlighting the interconnectedness of two seemingly opposite beings. The native and the foreign, the local and the international, the host and the newcomer all swirl together in tie-dye fashion on a Louisville city bus.
They remind me of the two-way currents of the Hudson River where river and sea water mix and flow freely. I can’t help but relate this to the integration process through which the host community and refugees engage, communicating with each other, and ultimately enriching each other lives. Millions of newcomers have experienced this since the founding of the country, and often starting at Ellis Island, at the mouth of the very river I am pondering.
I’m also reminded of the work of my deceased CWS colleague, John Backer, who in the 1950’s used to welcome arriving refugees at the New York City docks and escort them to Penn Station from where they would continue to begin their new lives thanks to the assistance of local churches. Today, this quality welcome continues due to the exceptional commitment of CWS’s 34 network offices.
In the past 12 months, they have collectively enrolled almost 1,500 refugee children in school, and have ensured that 80% of adults are self-sufficient through employment just six months after their arrival. For the first time in 33 years, the U.S. expects to receive as many refugees as authorized in the Presidential Determination: 70,000 individuals. In fiscal year 2013, CWS is slated to receive about 10% of this total by September 30.
I am proud to be a part of the resettlement of 7,000 women, men and children, and am humbled by the extraordinary efforts of local resettlement agencies and the many steadfastly generous community partners who bring such sweet smiles to children’s faces.
Sandra Vines, Associate Director for Resettlement and Integration