Eskinder Negash, Office of Refugee Resettlement director, paid a visit Thursday to Indianapolis to meet with Indiana refugee resettlement agencies, local government officials, refugee-serving organizations and community members.
A crowd of several hundred gathered Thursday morning at the Indiana Historical Society, where Negash congratulated the group on serving the Indiana refugee population and applauded their commitment to restoring dignity and freedom to people who had none in their homelands. He spent most of the session taking questions from the crowd.
It quickly became clear there would be no funding increases from the Office of Refugee Resettlement. Some people were looking for more assistance with housing. Educators were hoping for more money to fund programs for at-risk refugee students. Negash explained funding from his agency is based on the number of refugees coming into a state. The total dollar amount it has to work with during a year for the whole country is $15 million. Formerly the highest amount of money the agency could give to one state was $2.5 million; since Negash became director that amount has been capped at $1 million per state. Negash said refugees should stand on their own and become independent, and that prolonging their dependence on federal aid was not a solution.
Fred Gilbert, a retired state welfare case worker from Fort Wayne, and long involved with the local resettlement population, asked Negash if there would be a way to include leaders in the Burmese community in the resettlement decision processes for their community. Gilbert suggested by doing this it would not only empower them, but who better to know the strengths and weaknesses within their own communities.
Negash said he could not speak in terms of what the State Department's Bureau of Population Refugees and Migration does, but said he would like to see refugees in the state take a more active role in the resettlement process. Other states in the country already do this.
“I believe the process works better when we have the local support,” Negash said.
Making decisions about how many refugees will come into the country and then deciding what communities they will settle in is a collaborative effort, he explained, both on the part of the federal government and the charity organizations that will be helping the refugees when they arrive.
Since 1980, 3 million refugees have been resettled in the United States. Negash said there are 1,400-1,500 different organizations around the nation working with resettlement refugees. When the United States first began taking refugees in 1975, after the fall of Saigon, there were no resettlement organizations. Negash suggested reconnecting with more church organizations could also help the process, something he believes has fallen off over the years.
An English teacher had brought eight of her English as a Second Language refugee students to the gathering and asked Negash if he had a message for the group. Negash, who came to this country as a refugee, told the story of having to travel two and a half hours one way every day to get to his first job, which paid $3.35 an hour. The rent on his apartment at that time was just over $200 a month.
“But I was young, and it was my first job.” Negash said.
Now, after 50 years in the country, he is sending his children to Notre Dame and MIT.
“Your journey is part of the American history,” Negash said. “Be happy and be hopeful; you are in the right place.”