Refugee Resettlement: Greensboro as the Global Gate City
By Deonna Kelli Sayed
Kiuanh Ho was 11 years old when she and her family got off the plane in Greensboro.
“There was snow on the ground. I remember it being so very cold!” she says.
Vietnam didn’t have snow.
Everything about America was big. And different.
Kiuanh is a refugee whose family resettled in Greensboro.
The nation’s attention is currently focused on Trump’s recent Executive Order impacting refugee resettlement and immigration. The Order directly affects the Triad, which has welcomed refugees for three decades.
Today, Greensboro and Charlotte receive the largest numbers of refugees in the state.
Many in Greensboro are proud of the “global gate city.” The motto serves as a distinctive calling card that indicates tolerance and acceptance.
Kiuanh is one example of how refugees become part of the local fabric.
Before the plane touched down on that cold day, Kiuanh had seen an American for the first time several months earlier.
It happened during the refugee-processing interview.
“He was as tall as could be. I had never seen such a tall white man!” She laughs at the memory. Kiuanh explains that they didn’t have TV in Vietnam, or later, in the refugee camps in the Philippines.
“So how could I know about Americans?”
In 1991, Kiuanh (pronounced “Kee-wan”) and her three sisters arrived in Greensboro with their single mother. Settled by Lutheran Family Services, the family gained refugee status through the 1987 American Homecoming Act that provided resettlement preference to children born from American servicemen.
Kiuanh’s oldest sister is Amerasian, and the family faced persecution in Vietnam because of it.
“It was hard,” she remembers. “People called my mother and my sister a traitor.”
Kiuanh entered Aycock Middle School with limited English and second-hand clothes. She says that most refugees don’t have a lot when they arrive, “so you wear whatever is given to you. Kids at that age can be a little bit difficult to deal with. I remember being picked on and laughed at as I walked by. I was young and took it personally, and I felt like I didn’t belong.”
She also struggled with a childhood seizure disorder. When her mother sensed Kiuanh was getting sick, she’d walk the girls several blocks to another refugee’s home, someone who had been in the country longer and had better English skills.
“If something happened, they could help translate to the emergency crew. I know for mom it was really scary for her to be in a new country,” Kiuahn remembers.
As she looks back, these challenges seem minor. America was her home now.
“I mean, we left Vietnam for a reason and being able to come to America was everyone’s dream. No one would think, regardless of the challenges, not to stay here. Going back was not an option,” she explains.
As Somali-British poet Warsan Shire writes in her poem, “Home”:
“You only leave home when home won’t let you stay.”
Why are Refugees in Greensboro?
The Triad, and Greensboro, in particular, has welcomed refugees since Lutheran Family Services brought the first Southeast Asian refugees in the late 1970s.
In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, Greensboro became one resettlement city for Vietnamese and Montagnard refugees.
The Refugee Act of 1980 formalized efforts across federal, state, and local non-profit agencies.
Other agencies set up offices in Greensboro as infrastructures now existed. In the early 1980s, the federal government approached agencies in Greensboro to become one of four clusters for Cambodian resettlement.
The influx of that group further galvanized local resources, including many churches that stepped up to provide direct support.
Today, three refugee resettlement agencies have offices in the Triad: Church World Service, African Services Coalition, and World Relief in High Point.
Refugee resettlement traditionally garners bipartisan support, and is funded by the U.S. government.
Republican administrations have received some of the largest refugee numbers. In 1981-1987, Ronald Reagan’s administration welcomed 660,000 refugees.
During George H.W. Bush’s four years, 475,000 refugees were resettled.
The total number of refugees admitted during the Obama’s eight-year term: some high estimates put the number around 557,000.
Obama’s administration capped the 2017 ceiling for refugee resettlement at 110,000.
The United Nations High Committee on Refugees (UNHCR) puts the global refugee crisis at a historic high. By the end of 2015, UNHCR calculated that one per every 113 person on earth is a refugee. Fifty-four percent of the world’s refugees come from Somalia, Afghanistan, and Syria.
Donald Trump signed the “Protection Of The Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into The United States” order on Jan. 27. The Executive Order dramatically alters the landscape of refugee resettlement.
(A separate order signed on January 25th, “Enhancing Public Safety In the Interior of the United States,” targets immigrants and undocumented individuals.)
The Protection of The Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry in the United States:
• Suspends US refugee program for four months and readjusts the 2017 resettlement ceiling from 110,000 to 50,000
• Institutes an initial 90-day suspension on citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries. The suspension may be extended and the list of countries could grow.
• Institutes an indefinite ban on refugees from Syria
• Seeks potential changes in visa issuance and immigration screening
• Institutes a religious litmus test with a preference for Christian refugees
How Refugee Resettlement Works:
The UNHCR is the global entry point for most refugee processing. The 1951 Refugee Convention officially defined what determined a refugee, a definition ratified by 145 countries, the United States included.
The process starts as refugees file for status with UNCHR. From that point, countries that accept refugees have different processing requirements and quotas.
Entering the U.S. is particularly rigorous.
Kiuanh says there may be a misconception among Americans that refugees “get everything handed to them.” Rather, it is an emotionally difficult and arduous endeavor – a course that often begins with forced displacement to a refugee camp outside of their home country.
Kiuahn explains, “you apply then wait, and wait, and wait for the interview. When you get an interview, then you wait some more. If they allow you to come – sometimes they don’t allow the whole family to come, then the parents have to make a choice to leave children behind.”
She says that parents sometime make the decision to go with the younger children in hopes that one day they are able to visit or sponsor the rest of the family.
Then there are medical tests and biometric screenings. And more waiting.
Ultimately, less than 1 percent of the global refugees will meet the standards required for U.S. resettlement.
Even if a family is green-lighted for America, potential complications remain.
“Then something happens like a policy change, then those cases are put on hold and your start over again. Or you wait for them to review those cases again,” Kiuahn says.
On Thursday, Jan. 26, several hundred people gathered in Downtown Greensboro for a rally protesting issues around immigration, undocumented individuals and the refugee ban.
On Friday people who were en route to America with all documents in order, including visa holders, landed to find their entry now blocked.
The Trump administration didn’t consult interagency resources. Therefore, the order, now dubbed “The Muslim Ban,” had not accounted for necessary structural and procedural changes in the Department Homeland Security (DHS) to ensure a smooth process.
Initially, Border Agents didn’t know how to proceed, or who to detain, according to various news reports.
Protests erupted at port-of-entry airports across the United States.
Throughout the weekend of January 27, several federal judges across the country issued temporary emergency stays for individuals directly impacted by the ban, including those being detained and airports.
DHS issued a statement Saturday indicating the agency planned to uphold Trump’s Executive Order despite federal court rulings.
Protests continued throughout the weekend. Over 1000 people gathered at Raleigh-Durham International Airport on Sunday afternoon.
Things to know about local refugee resettlement:
• Refugees eligible to enter the United States are vetted through a process that originates with UNHCR and includes various intelligence agencies and U.S. government organizations. The process requires face-to-face interviews, biometric and medical screening, and cultural orientation classes
• Refugee resettlement in the U.S. is a federally funded program with a model of refugee self-sufficiency as the goal
• Average vetting process takes 4 to 10 months
• Syrians are already subject to an enhanced vetting process that takes an average of 18 to 24 months
• Refugees enter the U.S eligible for employment
• Local resettlement agencies help place refugees in suitable jobs
• Refugees are eligible to receive the same social service benefits as American citizens
• Local refugees receive a one-time “Reception and Placement Fund” between $900- $1100 per person, depending on the resettlement agency. Most resources go towards household set-up and must be used within 90 days.
• Agencies such as UNCG’s Center for New North Carolinians and New Arrivals Institute provided various support services once refugees are resettled
• Refugees must file for Green Card status within a year of their arrival
• The Doris Henderson Newcomers School is for recently arriving immigrants and refugees students in grades 3-12, and is part of the Guilford County School System.
It isn’t a free ride
What many people don’t realize: Refugees repay the cost of their plane tickets. Payments on the interest free loan start after the first six months of resettlement.
Kiuanh’s mother repaid the cost of four international plane tickets. “I remember mom making those payments a priority,” she says.
Contrary to refugees arriving with free hand outs, they arrive already in debt.
Even with start-up money and social services benefits, resources are quickly exhausted, particularly if the family includes children.
In the Triad, mosques coordinate efforts to help newly arrived Syrian refugees navigate the American system. They provide materials not covered by social services or initial aid (like personal effects, car seats for children, toiletries).
Several churches and private volunteers collect household goods for newcomers.
“It really takes a community,” Million Mekonnen points out. Mekonnen is the executive director of African Services Coalition in Greensboro.
Part of that community is relationship-building with employers willing to provide refugees jobs. Mekonnen shares that “refugees are dependable employees and hard working family members. Once they are placed in jobs, they don’t quit. They don’t go anywhere. Employers are coming to us.”
In many ways, Greensboro is ahead of the curve.
Every Campus a Refuge (ECAR), is an innovative program designed by Diya Abdo, a faculty member at Guilford College. Through the program, Guilford College has hosted two Syrian families and a Ugandan individual in on-campus housing. Currently, the campus is hosting an 11-member family until May 1.
The local effort is serving as model for national implementation. There are now four ECAR campuses nationwide, and Abdo is invited to speak at more.
Mobilizing local resources is more urgent than ever. In a email message, she speculated that “the refugee resettlement agencies will likely have their funds decreased; college and university campuses have much to offer in terms of resources to assist these agencies with the refugees currently in the U.S. and those who will be admitted after the 120 day ban. Campuses should start building volunteer and material capacity now in preparation for that.”
A group of Guilford College students recently received a $7,000 grant from Google igniteCS to facilitate 2-4 week STEM technology programs with middle and high school refugee students. UNCG’s Center for New North Carolinians (CNNC) will help coordinate the efforts.
Building larger community links are essential.
CNNC offers services to the immigrant and refugee population. Lizzie Biddle, the Community Centers Program Coordinator at CNNC, manages two community centers in apartment complexes with large refugee populations. Another center is in a mobile home park with Latino residents.
The community centers offer services such as English classes, after school tutoring, social enrichment programs, and health screenings.
CNNC also provides opportunities for academic research on refugee experiences.
Biddle explains that “in addition to language and culture, there are challenges that other low income Americans face.”
One of the biggest is navigating the health care system, particularly if someone “hasn’t been to the doctor in 15 years.”
Biddle mentions a project with faculty in nutrition and public health. Bhutanese community leaders work with refugees from Bhutan and Nepal to serve as liaisons with the medical community. The goal, explains Biddle, is “better cultural connections to work with American doctors.”
Refugees also help other refugees.
The Montagnard Daga Association helps train and place refugees into jobs. The association is a successful model of refugee-helping-refugee.
Former refugees offer support in other ways. Kiuahn and her husband took their four boys over Christmas holidays to visit a newly arrived Syrian family.
“We try to teach our kids to be appreciative of what we have. We try to connect them to the experiences we had growing up,” she says. The children played together despite the language barrier. Kiuanh asked the family what they needed, then she and her husband returned from Target with the items.
Local agencies are trying to figure out what current developments mean for refugee resettlement.
“We don’t know yet,” Mekonnon said in a phone interview.
The Executive Order isn’t clear about which refugees it will let in – or when.
He indicated that refugees are scheduled to arrive in Greensboro between now and February 27.
“We don’t know what is going to happen,” Mekonnon said.
He points to additional vague aspects of the Executive Order with no clarification. “For example, does it mean [refugees can’t come directly] from the country? There are Somalis who have been living in Nairobi, Kenya for 20 years as a refugee. We don’t know if this applies to them. There are Iraqis in Jordan, Turkey. Are they included?”
Mekonnon indicated that African Services Coalition remains committed to solutions. “We don’t know what the future holds. But we are here.
We will wait for the right time to assist.”
For many refugees, America is their last hope.
Kiuanh stresses that refugees want to work, and most express profound feelings of gratitude for this country.
“We don’t sit at home,” she says. “We feel we owe it to this country at least to support ourselves. This country gives us the opportunity to be safe. We just need a little bit of assistance in the beginning, but eventually we will be productive citizens of this country.”
Kiuanh and her husband own three restaurants in Greensboro: Boba House Vegetarian Restaurant, and two locations of nOma food and company, including the lunch counter at LeBauer Park.
She employees 60 people in Greensboro.
Kiuanh, like many refugees, grew up to become a local job creator.
Local resettlement and immigrant advocacy agencies, support organizations, and faith leaders gathered last Thursday in Downtown Greensboro for a press conference.
Speakers highlighted the moral costs of recent actions. They reaffirmed a commitment to protect targeted communities.
Local refugee resettlement does something more than make a city feel good about itself, the speakers reiterated.
Immigrant and refugee presence collapses the space between the local and the global. In many cases, refugee crises are often tethered, in part, to American foreign policy.
Refugees also shared their experiences during the press conference. Doha al-Taki, a Syrian who arrived in the U.S. six months ago, took the microphone towards the end.
She closed with these words:
“Because I am a refugee, I am not a terrorist. Because I am Syrian, I am not a terrorist. Because I am Muslim, I am not a terrorist. Because I wear the headscarf, I am not a terrorist. I am a human being and I want to live here with you in peace.”
Deonna Kelli Sayed is a writer, podcast producer, and storyteller. Learn more at dksayed.com, Twitter @deonnakelli, and Facebook @deonnaksayed