Who exactly is a refugee? – My Alaskan Employment

A year ago, I probably couldn’t have given you a good answer to that question – perhaps I would have said, ‘they are people who had to flee their country’.

Now, after having worked for the Refugee Assistance & Immigration Services (RAIS) of Alaska since September, I can tell you not only a fancy definition created by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (see below), but I can also tell you that refugees are amazing, resilient, hard-working individuals who dream of a better life and who aren’t scared to work hard for it.

I can tell you about the complex process by which refugees are resettled in the US, starting with the UN and Overseas Processing Entities that determine refugee populations and qualified individuals, with the Departments of State and Homeland Security performing background checks and health-screenings, and ending with Voluntary Organizations (mostly religious social service agencies) that serve as the case-managers and funds-dispersers for newly arrived refugees.

I can tell you facts about US resettlement, such as every state except Wyoming has resettlement programs, that resettlement was solely organized by religious organizations (until the 1980 Refugee Act that reformed immigration law), that the president determines how many refugees are permitted to enter the country and that after 9/11 that number dropped from ~70,000 to ~25,000.

Burmese Refugees at Mae La Camp in Thailand, Jackol@Flickr.com

I can tell you refugee resettlement happens in waves and that currently Anchorage is receiving people fleeing from Bhutan and Burma.  In the past, they have received people from former USSR countries and the Hmong, a slightly-nomadic Asian community.  I can tell you the histories in these countries that have caused thousands and thousands of people to flee, and forced them to live in refugee camps for upwards of 15 years, awaiting an opportunity for a better life.

I can tell you how hard it is to rent an apartment for the first time if you don’t have any references, and I can tell you about how hard it probably is to start a job where your main task is scrubbing bathrooms when you used to be a teacher in Bhutan or an engineer in Iraq, and how difficult it must be to rely on public transportation when you don’t yet speak English.

But our clients are truly amazing!  They overcome obstacles, they find their way around the city, they go to English classes, they get (and keep) jobs and all along the way, they celebrate their cultures and their communities.

I am so thankful to have been a part of the RAIS team, if even for a short time.  I am thankful that I was able to be a messenger for the program, advocating for our clients and inspiring community members to get involved.  Sustainable community organizing is harder (and slower) process than I imagine, but I was lucky enough to have the support of many great community members.

RAIS staff and clients at World Refugee Day in June

Official definition of refugee:  The 1951 Refugee Convention establishing UNHCR spells out that a refugee is someone who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”  (UNHCR website)

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One Response to “Who exactly is a refugee? – My Alaskan Employment”
  1. Ann Ives says:

    I am so glad you had this experience…….Julie worked with African refugees in Vt last year and was also thankful for getting to know and work with them!!

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