Oregon refugee resettlement agencies fear closure

Refugee resettlement agencies fear closure

PORTLAND, Ore. -- There are widespread worries among refugee resettlement agencies across the country that depend on federal money to operate.

It’s been days since President Trump signed an executive order banning people from seven predominantly Muslim countries for 90 days, indefinitely banning Syrian refugees and barring all refugees from entering the U.S. for 120 days.

As some people and elected officials push back on the president’s immigration policies, the Director of Homeland Security is defending President Trump's executive order on refugees, no longer calling it a ban on travel or Muslims. Secretary John Kelly said some refugees will be able to get a waiver if they're experiencing "undue hardship." He said 872 refugees will be arriving in the U.S. this week.

Still some organizations that resettle refugees have said Trump's order on refugees means no money coming down the pipeline. That could mean resettlement agencies may have to close their doors.

“It is truly dire. Our whole refugee program is on the line,” said Jan Elfers, the Executive Director of Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon. The nonprofit is one of three major resettlement organizations in Oregon.

She said it's possible they may not survive President Trump's executive order. The nonprofit depends on federal dollars they get for every refugee they resettle. Elfers estimated that about 80 percent of their funding comes from the federal government.

“How can you shut down a program for fourth months and expect to survive? It's just not possible,” said Elfers, who described the action as a total dismantlement of refugee resettlement programs across the country.

“Like any nonprofit, we don't have lots of money sitting in a reserve to handle this kind of crisis. This is totally unprecedented,” added Howard Kenyon, Chief Finance and Operations Officer of Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon.

The concern is that due to the cut to funding, valuable trained staff may have to be laid off. In that case, they would be forced to take other jobs and may not come back. Each of the three organizations have between 10-20 people on staff.

Yahya Kane is one of the staff members whose job is on the line. He’s been with SOAR, the Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon program that resettles refugees.

Kane knows better than most, what it's like to run, fearful for your life. Roughly 20 years ago, he left his home country of Mauritania in the middle of a civil war.

“It was really dangerous for me to live in my country at that time,” said Kane.

He made it to the U.S. seeking asylum. For the last three or so years, Kane has worked at SOAR. Among many things, he helps connect schools and refugee families.

“They wanted to write letters to welcome refugees,” said Kane as he showed off handmade cards school children made for refugees.

Soon, he along with other staff at resettlement agencies in Oregon may be jobless.

“I’m not just concerned about my own job. But I’m concerned about all the people I’d be able to help,” Kane said.

He said when he heard about the executive order, he felt a bit of fear.

“It’s kind of scary to be honest,” said Kane. “It's just basically telling them [refugees], go back to the people who were killing you."

In addition, Elfers said the executive order is separating families.

“We have a family from Ukraine that was supposed to be coming in this week. They sold their home. They took their kids out of school. They quit their jobs. They're fleeing persecution in the Ukraine and they are shut off from coming to rejoin their families in Portland,” said Elfers.

For Kane, if funding doesn't come through, he won’t just be facing the prospect of losing his job and the ability to provide for his wife and two kids.

“We won't be able to help people. We won't be able to receive the people who I know are in need,” said Kane.

But he said despite all the fear, he remains hopeful. Kane said he’s encouraged by the thousands of people who have protested the president's immigration policies.

In the meantime, Elfers said combined, all three agencies would have to privately raise between $1-2 million dollars to stay afloat. That number does not include the money resettlement agencies would also give refugees to help them pay for necessities.

“I just think people need to take in the gravity of how serious this is. It’s just heartbreaking. It really is,” she said.

Elfers said under the Obama Administration 110,000 refugees were going to come to Oregon. When President Trump took office, that number dwindled to around 50,000. She said Oregon has already taken in about 30,000 refugees this year.

© 2017 KGW-TV


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