Refugee volunteer shares experiences working with refugees in Africa
Editor's note: This is an ongoing series of articles showcasing how the faithful of the Diocese of Charlotte welcome and support refugees through Catholic Social Services' Refugee Resettlement Office. To read the previous story, click here.
The United Nations High Command for Refugees estimates that there are 15.4 million refugees worldwide who have fled their homelands because of a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political beliefs or membership in a particular social group. This number is greater than the populations of North and South Carolina combined.
Perhaps even more startling is that despite the desperate circumstances refugees encounter daily, less than 1 percent are ever given the opportunity for resettlement. Most never get the chance to begin a new life in a new country. Having fled violence for relative safety, usually in a neighboring country, refugees wait for years and sometimes even a lifetime for a solution to their situation. James Reid, a Catholic Social Services Refugee Resettlement Office volunteer, worked on the front lines of that reality in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, working for the UNHCR.
"I interviewed refugees for resettlement purposes," explains Reid. "The community services section of the UNHCR would interview them first and determine their status as refugees. Those interviews were completed in the refugee camps near the Ethiopian border. After getting refugee status, some would be given a pass to move from the camps into Addis Ababa. If they met the resettlement criteria, they would then come to me for a more extensive interview process to meet the requirements of the countries who will accept refugees for resettlement."
Pictured: James Reid with children in Ethiopia. (Photo provided by Tracy Winsor)
Twenty-five countries are currently involved in the resettlement of refugees, with half coming to the U.S. The process of approval for resettlement in the U.S. also involves a series of security and health screenings conducted by the U.S. State Department and the Department of Homeland Security's Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Those refugees approved are then allocated to voluntary resettlement agencies like the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The USCCB in turn maintains a network of affiliate refugee resettlement agencies such as the RRO. These local offices coordinate the resettlement of refugees in local communities.
There is a refugee admissions ceiling established each year in the U.S. by the president in consultation with Congress and the State Department. This year the ceiling is 76,000. Most refugees coming to the U.S. will come from Asia and Africa.
"It was intense work," observes Reid, "and the interviews were demanding because the refugees' stories are horrifying...many times they would break down sobbing during the interview. These are stories of war and genocide and torture and rape...and then of course the story of the flight, with often nothing more than the clothes on their backs."
After completing the interview process, Reid was responsible for writing a full report making the case for resettlement. He would research and document so-called country of origin information (e.g., historical details like regime change or instances of ethnic violence) that would corroborate the stories offered by the refugee. The UNHCR maintained a database for that purpose filled with comprehensive, approved articles on the countries from which refugees were coming. For Reid, the personal experiences of refugees and the suffering they endured remained most haunting.
"You are listening to men and women describe these horrible acts, and it is like listening to the movie script except it was their lives and you know that their whole lives will be affected by the brutality," he says.
The refugee camps around Addis Ababa are inhabited by Somalian, Eritrean, Sudanese, Burundian, Rwandan and Congolese refugees. Reid also once encountered a refugee from Yemen.
In Ethiopia, it is illegal for refugees to work so life in the camps can be difficult if not impossible, and most refugees are seeking resettlement.
"Because of the small number of those resettled, most refugees around the world remain in crowded, inadequate refugee camps," adds Reid. "They get a miniscule living stipend that won't always cover living expenses, and they have little access to the kinds of goods and services that Americans consider basic. Their living circumstances are dire."
Reid's experience with refugees in Africa has made him more aware of and more thankful for the basic assistance available to Americans in need.
"In this country we have counselors and help-lines for victims of violence. We have food stamps and government assistance for those who do not have enough income to make it on their own," he observes. "We have assistance for people to go to school and educate themselves, and, even with the current economy, more employment opportunities than could ever be imagined by the refugees I interviewed in Africa."
Reid recently became a volunteer with the RRO. He supports newly resettled refugees in Charlotte as a mentor.
"Yesterday, I met for almost four hours with the two Iraqi refugees I mentor. It was a great time and I look forward to seeing them again this week," Reid says. "They are looking for what all refugees want...clarity, dignity and the hope for a better tomorrow. They need assistance with a few things, so I will do my best to help."
Tracy Winsor is a volunteer coordinator with Catholic Social Services. The next article in this series will be an interview of Father Timothy Reid, pastor at St. Ann Church, about his work as a staff member with the USCCB working in refugee resettlement.
How you can get involved
To schedule a presentation, request information regarding refugee apartment sponsorship or to volunteer with theRefugee Resettlement Office, call 704-370-3283. To learn more about Catholic Social Services, go online to www.cssnc.org.