Welcoming the stranger: refugees in America

A volunteer welcomes refugees in Chicago. Photo provided by Exodus World Service Facebook.

by Caroline Love
Medill Reports

There are 26 million refugees in the world today, according to the United Nations, but only a fraction of them will gain a new home.

“Less than one percent will ever be resettled into a third country,” said Sue Horgan, the senior director of program operations at Exodus World Service. “That’s really a devastating statistic.”

Exodus World Service is a Christian organization in Chicago that mobilizes the Christian community to welcome refugees. The organization also educates Christians about refugees in order to combat common misconceptions of refugees.

“They go through an extreme vetting process that takes years,” Horgan said. “They’re actually safer to be here than we are because I haven’t been vetted like they have been.”

Volunteers with Exodus serve refugees in their community in a variety of ways. They show refugees which bottle in the shower is shampoo, teach them how to survive a snowy Chicago winter and tutor the refugee children in English.

With a new language and culture to learn, the struggle isn’t over for refugees when they’re resettled.

“After all they’ve been through and they arrive here, their struggles don’t end,” said Saba Ayman-Nolley of the Hyde Park Kenwood Interfaith Council. “In some ways, new struggles just start.”

Volunteers at Exodus and the Interfaith Council have had fewer refugees to work with under President Trump, who lowered the number of refugees admitted to the country each year of his presidency. In 2017, he released an executive order increasing the vetting process for refugees.

“I’m establishing new vetting measures to keep radical Islamic terrorists out of the United States of America,” Trump said. “We don’t want them here.”

Nicole Hallett, an associate clinical professor of law at the University of Chicago and director of the immigrant rights clinic, said Trump’s vetting process doesn’t serve any security purpose.

“The protections and the vetting were already quite strong before these changes,” Hallett said. “It really has just served the purpose of slowing everything down and decreasing the number of refugees allowed in the country.”

Horgan said the changing sanctions and bans under the Trump administration was a rollercoaster of emotions. One refugee mother has been separated from one of her children and grandchildren for four years. Horgan said the mother’s resilience and strength are inspiring.

“She remains strong and optimistic and hopeful and filled with gratitude that she could be in a safe place now,” Horgan said.

Horgan said her hope and prayer is that the Biden administration will welcome more refugees.

In a pre-recorded address at the Jesuit Refugee Service’s fortieth anniversary, the president-elect answered Horgan’s prayer.

“The Biden Harris administration will restore America’s historic role in protecting the vulnerable and defending the rights of refugees everywhere and raising our annual refugee target to 125,000,” Biden said.

With this promise, faith organizations like Exodus and the Interfaith Council could have thousands more refugees to welcome home.

Caroline Love is a social justice and investigative reporter at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @carolinelove37