Tennessee office works to dispel refugee myths

Theresa Laurence
NASHVILLE – Since its founding in 1962, Catholic Charities of Tennessee has assisted refugees and asylum seekers and helped them assimilate to American culture and the local community.
Today, the plight of refugees has moved to center stage as people fleeing violence and persecution in the Middle East flood into Europe. Meanwhile, the millions of refugees around the world wait and hope to be resettled in a more stable and secure country. Those who work with refugees in Tennessee are taking steps to clear up misconceptions about who refugees are and the rigorous process they must undergo to reach the United States.
“This is my 41st year on the job and I’ve never seen so much misinformation circulating about refugees,” said Bill Sinclair, executive director of Catholic Charities of Tennessee. He first joined the organization more than 40 years ago to help launch a more formalized refugee resettlement program, welcoming refugees from Southeast Asia to Middle Tennessee.
While millions of refugees are fleeing their home countries fearful for their own lives, Americans have become more afraid of refugees. That fear stems from not understanding the screening and resettlement process, which can be long and complicated, Sinclair said. Once people learn the facts, “it dispels the myth” that refugees are here to cause harm, he added. “People have stereotyped anyone from the Middle East as a bad guy, and that’s not true.”
“The misinformation is much louder than the facts right now,” said Holly Johnson, director of the Tennessee Office for Refugees, a department of Catholic Charities of Tennessee. “The individual families who are struggling are getting lost in all this noise.”
Terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, late last year left Americans on high alert, and some Tennessee state legislators reacted by calling for swift and harsh action against refugees. Rep. Glen Casada (R-Franklin) proposed that the National Guard round up all Syrian refugees and move them out of state; Sen. Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro) urged Gov. Bill Haslam to sue the federal government so Tennessee could block future refugees from settling in the state.
About 58,000 refugees live in Tennessee, which is less than one percent of the state’s population; only 30 Syrian refugees were resettled in the entire state last year. Almost all refugees that come to Tennessee are resettled in the four major cities: Nashville, Memphis, Knoxville and Chattanooga.
On Dec. 9, legislators held a joint state and local government committee hearing focused on refugees. Johnson, who was among those called to testify before the committee, saw it as an opportunity to educate lawmakers about refugees and how they are resettled in the state. She also spoke about the role of her office, Tennessee Office for Refugees, its function and its relationship with the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement and with local resettlement agencies like the Catholic Charities Office of Refugee Resettlement.
The refugee program “is the longest and hardest way to come to the U.S.,” Johnson told the committee hearing.
Refugees must undergo a rigorous screening process that takes at least 18 months. Due to the high number of refugees worldwide, it is not uncommon for them to live in camps for a decade or more while they await one of the few spots available for resettlement. Less than one percent of refugees worldwide are ever resettled.
Refugees are defined as individuals who have had to leave their home country because of a well-founded fear of persecution. They are targeted because of their religious or political beliefs, or membership in a particular social class.
The process for a refugee to come to the United States begins after a refugee reports to a representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. If a refugee is seeking entry into the U.S., they will undergo vetting from the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, and the State Department. This involves extensive interviews and background checks, with a particular focus on any signs of radicalization or connection with a terrorist group, which would immediately disqualify that person from entry into the U.S.
While many people have concerns about the screening process – that it can’t be adequately done in a country like Syria where the information infrastructure is in shambles – “those who do the job of vetting are used to checking into people who don’t have all their documents in a nice, neat folder,” Johnson said. “I understand that people are scared, but they should not be scared of refugees, because the process works well.”
There have been no instances of terror attacks by refugees carried out on American soil; the San Bernardino or Chattanooga shooters did not come to the U.S. as refugees, neither did the Boston Marathon bombers, Johnson noted.
If a refugee meets all the guidelines and is chosen to resettle in the U.S., officials at the U.S. State Department, with input from non-government organizations that work with refugees, determine where new refugee arrivals will live. They then notify the local resettlement agency, such as Catholic Charities Refugee Resettlement Office, which will meet them at the airport, help them move into a new apartment, and provide the necessary cultural orientation.
In 2013, state legislators called for a fiscal review to determine the economic impact of refugees, and the study concluded that refugees contribute twice as much money to the state than they take.
In 2015, Catholic Charities of Tennessee helped resettle 375 refugees from Afghanistan, Bhutan, Burma (Myanmar), Burundi, Congo, Cuba, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Iran, Iraq, Somalia and Sudan. Altogether, about 1,600 refugees were resettled statewide.
(This is an excerpt of a story from the Jan. 1 Tennessee Register, reprinted with permission.)