Imagine that you can’t go home.
You and your family are forced out of your home and your country. You can’t go back because someone – the government or someone else – would try to hurt you for political, ethnic, religious or other reasons.
April marks the 31st anniversary of the Refugee Act, which first took effect in 1980 and created one of the biggest and most important humanitarian programs: the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program. Every year, the United States welcomes thousands of refugees into the country and helps them start their lives over again.
The United Nations defines a refugee as a person who has a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, social group, or political opinion and for that reason is outside the country of her nationality. The United States continues to be the largest country for refugee resettlement in the world – over three million refugees have been resettled in the United States. For three decades, Massachusetts has welcomed its role as a receiving state for refugees from all over the world.
Through the years, Massachusetts has welcomed refugees from Russia, Vietnam, Bosnia, Ethiopia and Somalia and more recently, Iraq, Burma and Bhutan, helping to make our immigrant populations in Massachusetts among the most diverse in the country. The Massachusetts Refugee Resettlement Program (MRRP) is administered by the state’s Office for Refugees and Immigrants (ORI), which works with a statewide network of more than 60 non-profit organizations and businesses to help refugee families.
Last year, Massachusetts welcomed about 2,400 refugees, continuing an increasing trend for arrivals during the last four years. Refugee resettlement occurs in dozens of communities around the state, but is concentrated largely in Greater Boston (including Chelsea, Lynn and Lowell), Central Massachusetts (with much of that in Worcester) and in Western Massachusetts (especially Springfield, West Springfield and Westfield).
As the State Refugee Coordinator’s Office, ORI works with other state agencies and non-profit organizations to develop programs that help refugees receive health screenings, cultural orientation, job training, English classes and school-based programs for refugee youth. Our goal is to help every refugee family begin their new lives in Massachusetts as smoothly as possible and to make sure our communities understand who they are and help them become more integrated into the life of the community.
More than three decades since the enactment of the U.S. Refugee Act some leaders both inside the resettlement system and outside it (e.g. members of Congress) have questioned whether the current system should be reformed to reflect today’s increasingly globalized landscape.
A report released last year by U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee and led by Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana illuminated some challenges about the current refugee resettlement system, which is federally funded. To view the report click here: http://lugar.senate.gov/issues/foreign/refugee/report.pdf
In Massachusetts, we have also seen challenges to our resettlement programs in recent years, primarily with accessing affordable rental housing for refugee clients (particularly in the Boston area) and helping our resettlement agencies cope with the uneven flow of refugee arrivals that can impact agencies staffing and budgeting needs. We continue to work closely with all of our agencies and with our funders in the federal government to address these challenges, because we continue to believe that Massachusetts is an excellent place for resettling refugees.
Remember, the refugees can’t go back home, but they have the same dreams and aspirations that we all do: raising a healthy family, leading a productive life and being engaged in their community to build a better future.
Some people call that the American Dream. It is. I’d like to think that it’s a universally shared Human Dream but that for millions of people who suffer under oppressive governments or have fled from war-torn nations it’s important to give them refuge. And we work every day to help them find that refuge here in Massachusetts.
To learn more about the Massachusetts Refugee Resettlement Program, including statistics about the countries of origin for our refugees and the statewide network of agencies that we work with, check out the ORI website at www.mass.gov/ori.
To read more about worldwide refugee resettlement, you can also go to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees at www.unhcr.org.
Richard Chacon is executive director of the Office for Refugees and Immigrants (ORI).