Jeffrey Cornish wants to dispel the myth that refugees in the United States are a threat and a burden to society.
“We need … to change the conversation about refugees,” says Cornish, the director of the International Rescue Committee in Tucson.
“These people have fled oppression and the terror of extremist regimes. They know firsthand the horrors of living under those conditions and yet many in the United States, both citizens and our elected officials, are defining them as the very monsters, the very threat that they ran from,” he says, alluding to the executive order President Donald Trump signed on Jan. 27, which sought to suspend all refugee admissions for 120 days, to bar Syrian refugees indefinitely and to block immigration from seven countries for 90 days.
Cornish will take part in a forum on refugee resettlement, “Welcome the Stranger: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free” at Congregation Or Chadash on Monday, March 6 at 7 p.m. He will be joined by Lorel Donaghey, program director at the Tucson office of Refugee Refocus, which is a division of Lutheran Social Services, and Marisol Habon, with community outreach at Catholic Community Services. Several refugees will tell their personal stories. Pastries baked by Syrian refugees will be served.
Cornish says he and his colleagues will present “a Refugee 101” seminar for the audience, beginning with a global perspective: “What happens, how, to a refugee when they cross a border, fleeing from conflict, how do they register as a refugee and from there, how are they selected to resettle in the United States.”
“Then we narrow the focus” to the U.S. refugee resettlement program, he says, including how refugees are vetted, and then focus on Tucson, with an outline of services local resettlement agencies provide to refugees “to help them get on their feet, get acculturated, and start their new life in the U.S.”
The local experts will discuss how classifying refugees as a burden is “completely mistaken,” he says. “We have a wonderful record of getting refugees employed as soon as possible after their arrival in the United States,” with a 96 percent success rate of finding them jobs within the first 180 days after they arrive.
“Refugees work,” Cornish emphasizes. “They pay taxes, they rent apartments, they buy groceries, they buy cars and they even buy houses. So refugees, as has been shown in study after study, are net contributors to society. In fact you could call them an economic engine for a community.”
While a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order halting the administration’s travel ban on Feb. 4, and the ninth circuit court of appeals on Feb. 9 upheld that ruling, the injunction doesn’t cover all elements of the executive order.
Cornish explains that the ruling doesn’t affect the section of the order that reduces the number of refugees to be resettled in the United States this year from 110,000 to 50,000.
“I’m going through a restructuring exercise right now. We’re going to have to lay off staff. We’re going to have to reduce services,” such as interpreter services, he says.
Fran Braverman, a member of the Or Chadash social action committee, organized the March 6 event.
For nine years, Braverman has volunteered with Noor Women’s Association, an interfaith nonprofit that assists refugees, with an emphasis on widows and other single mothers. The name comes from the Arabic word for light.
“We help after the agencies aren’t able to help [further] with rent, just supporting and taking people to doctors, teaching English and whatever they need,” she says.
“It has been the most humbling experience of my life,” Braverman says, explaining that refugees arrive here with no family support, few possessions and no English, yet face the challenge of starting over with warmth, grace and appreciation.
Refugees she knows, even those who have become U.S. citizens, have been frightened by recent developments. “They came here to be safe and where will they go if we push them out?” she says.
“The needs of refugees worldwide have never been greater … certainly since World War II,” says Cornish.
The refugee population in the United States is very diverse, he adds. Until last year, when the Obama administration committed to taking more refugees from war-torn Syria, only 30 percent of refugees coming to the United States were from the Middle East.
The criteria for selection in the United States is based on need, he says. “How desperate is your situation, how imminent is the threat to your survival?”
Cornish notes that the American approach to resettlement differs from the European model, where refugees end up in segregated neighborhoods and often are not permitted to work right away.
“Our security,” says Cornish, “lies not in stopping the refugee program but in setting refugees up for success, so they are fully invested in our society and are welcomed by their neighbors, and they have no reason to feel isolated and radicalize, if you will, and every reason to support the America that supports them.”