Brandishing a torch and a noble demeanor, Lady Liberty has been ushering boats from across the globe into Ellis Island for over a century. Seeking opportunity, freedom, safety, and a multitude of other privileges U.S. citizens often take for granted, displaced people from all over the world look to America as a fresh start—the same new beginning it offered to the first immigrant settlers who laid claim to this land. However, refugees who seek a haven in the US have no easy road. From the atrocities they experienced in their countries to the litany of hurdles they meet here, there is no clear-cut path.
Luckily, the compassionate hearts behind the Interfaith Refugee Ministry – Wilmington (IRM-W)—a local affiliate of the Episcopal Migration Ministries (New York City) and a sub-office of Interfaith Refugee Ministry, Inc. in New Bern, NC—aim to combat the expansive list of obstacles faced by refugees. This Saturday, June 20, they will host an event in Hugh MacRae Park to commemorate World Refugee Day, a time of recognition established by the United Nations General Assembly in 2000 to bring a face and voice to the countless refugees across the globe. The annual day is marked by events taking place in over 100 countries.
Last year the IRM-W held its first event at Hugh MacRae to enlighten on the area’s growing refugee population. “It is a day where the community can come out to learn about the cultures, stories, struggles, and strengths of refugees arriving in Wilmington from Burma (also known as Myanmar, in Southeast Asia), Colombia, Cuba, and Iraq,” Sara Pascal, sub-office coordinator for IRM-W, tells.
Since 2010 over 350 refugees, the majority of whom come from Burma and comprise various ethnic groups within that nation, have made Wilmington home. After undergoing a long and taxing process to be approved for resettlement in the U.S., they come to the Port City through the IRM-W’s U.S. Refugee Admissions Program. They arrive still disturbed by their harsh treatment in their own countries, which is usually a result of their religion, ethnicity or political opinion.
“They may have experienced or witnessed torture, trauma, extreme poverty, and hopelessness overseas,” Pascal says, “but they arrive here with the simple goals of living in a safe place, free of persecution, and having the opportunity to work to support their families, hoping their children have a better future.”
In order to begin their new lives, they must learn English, something many adult refugees accomplish while working 40-plus hour weeks at mentally and physically exhausting jobs. Plus, the language barrier often prevents them from successfully aiding their school-aged children with homework. A trip to the doctor’s office or even a routine errand run, too, can become a nearly impossible feat.
As well, arriving refugees must become accustomed to the ways of the U.S. This can entail anything from becoming familiar with American-style apartments to understanding cultural differences most U.S. citizens aren’t even aware of. For many people around the world, hang-drying clothes is a cultural norm, and when living in an apartment, many complexes explicitly forbid hanging clothes on balconies. Learning the banking system and navigating city-bus routes are two other essentials. These are all components of assimilation IRM-W strives to help refugees with in order to help them achieve self-sufficiency as soon as possible.
The organization sends management staff to the airport to greet refugees. From there, they arrange housing and enroll them in an English class. They help them enroll children in school and provide intensive cultural orientation, as well as connect them with medical practitioners, other professionals and potential employers. Even after all these initial efforts are completed, IRM-W provides continued mentorship and communication to ensure new residents have all their needs met.
“IRM-W also hopes to promote community integration by raising awareness of refugees’ cultures and backgrounds within the mainstream Wilmington community,” Pascal says. “By understanding our new neighbors, and vice versa, the goal is to enhance our community and prevent any issues.”
Over time, most refugees continue to adapt, often acquiring driver’s licences and purchasing more permanent homes, according to Pascal. The IRM-W is there with them every step of the way, safeguarding their right to also pursue the “American Dream.”
In 2015 IRM-W anticipates an influx of refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo. As such, they are seeking Swahili-speaking volunteers or others with ties to East Africa to become a part of their 100-plus member team of volunteers. Likewise, this year will see the implementation of the U.S. State Department’s initiative to address the volume of unaccompanied children who come across the border between the U.S. and Mexico. Put in place last year, it provides a means for legal U.S. citizens from El Salvador, Guatemala or Honduras to file paperwork for their children—who are still in danger in their home country—to qualify for refugee status and safely be reunited with their family in the U.S. through the Refugee Admissions Program. As IRM-W is the only refugee resettlement agency in this area of the state, they expect a significant amount of their efforts will help fortify the success of this new initiative.
Folks can get a first-hand dose of what they do and the stories behind their work. The World Refugee Day event will kick off at 10 a.m. with a “Walk Around the World.” Through this, attendees will be able to meet refugees and hear about their stories. Cultural entertainment, international food and children’s activities will color the event. Events will continue through 2 p.m. Donations are welcome and T-shirts will be available for purchase. All funds will benefit IRM-W’s refugee resettlement programming, which will combine with monies procured from their annual fundraising event, “A Ticket to Taste.” It will be held on November 14 at UNCW’s Burney Center this year. For now locals can become informed through the celebratory event held this Saturday.
“Meet a person who has had to flee his country to save his life and give his child a future—it will change your life,” Pascal says. “No need to travel the world to make a global difference.”