By TONIA HILL
The Hyde Park Refugee Project hosted the first in a series of community dialogue events regarding refugee resettlement on Saturday, Sept. 16, at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, 1100 E. 55th St.
The program titled, “Coming to America: The Refugee Experience” explored challenges faced by refugees as they transition to living in the U.S. as well as the issues facing immigration as President Donald Trump’s administration attempts to restrict immigration from Muslim majority countries.
Dorothy Pytel and Penny Visser, Ph.D. co-directors of the Hyde Park Refugee Project, spoke during the program.
“One of the things that’s most remarkable about the resettlement effort here in Hyde Park is the extent to which it’s been a group effort,” Visser said. “In our case, it’s been an entire community that’s come together to welcome and support our new neighbors.”
Last year, several local organizations partnered with the Hyde Park Refugee Project to help two refugee families get a fresh start in the U.S.
Hyde Park-based organizations worked alongside RefugeeOne, a not-for-profit organization that provides a full range of services to refugees resettled in the Chicago area.
The organization assists approximately 2,500 refugees a year. Most of the families they help live near RefugeeOne’s headquarters, in the Uptown neighborhood.
The event featured panel discussions with leaders of organizations who assist refugees as they transition to life in the U.S.
Panelists discussed how current policies in place at the federal level had impacted the organizations they are part of and immigrant communities at large.
“Right now it’s a time of great uncertainty about what lies ahead for refugee resettlement in the U.S. and mutual aid societies, said Jims Porter, policy and communications coordinator at RefugeeOne. “We are anxiously awaiting President Trump to set a presidential determination or a refugee arrivals goal for 2018.”
Porter stated the number of refugee admissions according to reports could be as low as 40,000 to 50,000, which he said would be lowest in U.S. history. He added that the goal of refugee admissions is about 80,000.
“Some people in the [Trump] administration have been pushing for numbers as low as 15,000 which would ultimately decimate the resettlement program,” Porter said.
Others on the panel including Blair Brettschneider, executive director and founder of Girl Forward; Suzanne Akhras Sahloul, founder and president of the Syrian Community Network; and Laura Youngberg, executive director, Iraqi Mutual Aid Society discussed how the shift in policy had caused anxiety and the spread of misinformation among those they serve.
“After the election, we had girls coming into our office crying,” Brettschneider said. “There’s been a lot of heightened anxiety just among our population and in the greater community.”
“There’s a great concern that with these numbers going down the number of people at RefugeeOne and other resettlement agencies,” Youngberg said.
Noting that those who assist refugees “understand how the process works and make sure people are getting to the steps that they need to once they arrive here maybe laid off.”
Youngberg added that the Iraqi Mutual Aid Society is funded as a part of the Ethnic Community Self Help Program, which falls under the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement. The Mutual Aid Society receives funding through federal block grants.
The Ethnic Community Self Help Program assists refugees as they transition to the U.S.
“We don’t know what the future of that program is,” Youngberg said. “It lasts three to five years after arrival. It’s entirely under the President’s jurisdiction and whether or not the program continues and what it looks like is something we don’t know.”
On Friday, Jan. 27, Trump signed an executive order that restricts immigration from seven Muslim countries (Syria, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen), suspends all refugee admission for 120 days, and bars all refugees from Syria.
The signing of the executive order led to massive protests at several airports in the U.S. as Custom Border Patrol agents detained people with valid documentation.
Since the order was issued in January, it has faced legal challenges from federal judges nationwide who have called for a halt to the order.
In February, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously that the travel ban should remain suspended, allowing people who were denied entry to continue entering the country.
Trump crafted a revised executive order in March that banned travelers from six Muslim countries Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen for 90 days and suspended all refugee admission for 120 days.
Lower courts say the executive order violates the U.S. Constitution and federal immigration law.
The U.S. Supreme Court, in June, reinstated a portion of the executive order, which allowed parts or the order to go into effect. The Supreme Court will review the request next month.
The panel also dispelled some of the misconceptions surrounding refugee settlement.
“When we were seeing all of the refugees get on boats and head to the shores of Greece and Italy they walked through Europe and ended up in Sweden and Germany,” Sahloul said. “A lot of people thought this is how refugees are coming to the U.S. or that they somehow arrive here and haven’t been properly checked or vetted.”
Other panel topics at the event included the “Resettlement Process,” “Justice and the Global Refugee Crisis,” and “Advocacy & Activism.”