Retired attorney Carolyn Karpinos enjoys the process of filling out bureaucratic forms for refugees.
A volunteer at Carrboro-based Refugee Support Center, 68-year-old Karpinos helps refugees fill out various forms ranging from citizenship applications to other certificates on a weekly basis. A non-profit organization dedicated to helping refugees, the center provides English classes, peer tutoring and mentorship programs.
“Every week, I hear amazing stories from them of how they got here,” Karpinos said. “It never ceases to amaze me that how great and resourceful many of these people who’ve come to our country are.”
North Carolina has received one of the largest numbers of refugees in the country. From Oct. 1, 2015 to Sept. 30, 2016, 3,342 refugees arrived in North Carolina.
For refugees who flee from violence, war, oppression, trafficking, persecution and trauma, and who often do not speak English, settling down in a new country can be a challenging process.
“The resettlement program is the idea that the refugees can become self-sufficient through employment almost immediately upon their entry in the United States,” said Ellen Andrews, office director of Church World Service Durham, a local resettlement agency.
Each refugee receives a minimum of $925 from the federal government to help them find housing, employment and become self-sufficient. With limited funding, refugees need to find employment soon after they arrive, but their language ability, lack of employment history in the U.S. and sometimes health issues can make it hard for them to obtain suitable employment right away.
“I think for most refugees, they do succeed, they find jobs quickly and they are able to support themselves. But I would also say that’s probably the greatest challenge,” Andrews said.
Karpinos said refugees sometimes are forced to take low-skilled jobs because of the language barrier.
“When many people come here from another country, not speaking the language, they end up having to take minimum-wage jobs,” Karpinos said. “They end up having to work in places that are not specific to the kind of training or knowledge that they had in their country before.”
To help refugees become self-sufficient, resettlement agencies provide employment-oriented services, offering job application workshops, English classes and interview preparations. Navigating daily life, on the other hand, is pivotal for their adjustment into life in the U.S. Resettlement agencies also help refugees find apartments, get furniture, enroll their children in school and fill out documentations.
“One of the biggest challenges is the general idea of culture shock,” said Scott Phillips, field office director of U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants North Carolina Field Office in Raleigh, a resettlement agency. He said daily activities, such as taking a bus and getting groceries, can be challenging for refugees who are not familiar with the local environment.
Despite the hardships and difficulties, many do find employments promptly and immerse into the local communities. Jenny Bodnar, senior case specialist at World Relief Durham, a resettlement agency, said refugees take on difficult jobs, such as dishwashing or cleaning services, in order to support themselves.
“They are serious about starting a new life here,” Karpinos said.
Beyond the Syrian Refugee Crisis
The spotlight has shone on the refugee community since the beginning of the Syrian Refugee Crisis, which has caused the death or exodus of more than 11 million Syrians.
“Since the Syrian Refugee Crisis really hit the news in the late fall last year, October and November, we were absolutely inundated with calls from people wanting to know how they could help, how they could support refugees,” Andrews said. “We’ve seen a pretty dramatic increase in our donations, in our volunteer interests in the last year.”
Other settlement agencies have witnessed similar enthusiasm for volunteering and donations brought by the media exposure.
“Some people call and they only want to help a Syrian family, because I think the media has focused highly on the Syrian crisis,” Bodnar said.
Noting that Church World Service Durham has helped refugees from over 20 countries, Andrews said the media exposure of the Syrian Refugee Crisis has been a good thing for the refugee community overall, but there are many refugees from other countries who need as much help as those from Syria.
Church World Services Durham helped settle 318 refugees between Oct. 1, 2015 and Sept. 30, 2016. Of them, approximately 70 are Syrians. During the same period, 3,342 refugees arrived in North Carolina, and 607 are Syrian refugees.
Andrews said many Syrian refugees have lived in the urban areas, but this is not the case with every refugee group, noting some refugees need to learn how to use running water and electricity.
“I think as people become aware of refugees in our community, it’s important for them to be aware that they are coming from many different parts of the world,” Bodnar said. “All of them have been through persecutions and traumas of different kinds, and we need to think as a community how to welcome everyone including the Syrians but not limited to the Syrians.”
“The others have stories that are just as incredible as what the Syrians often do,” Bodnar said.
A Welcoming Community
“The Triangle area is a very welcoming place. Our office has more volunteers than any other World Relief office in the country,” Bodnar said. “This community is very supportive of refugees and a welcoming place for newcomers.”
Bodnar cited the myriad medical and education resources in the area as reasons why the Triangle serves refugees so well. She said the universities attract people from around the world, making language interpreters and people familiar with other cultures available for the refugees.
“Public education here has been a strong advocate for diversity, for the resettlement of refugees as well as incoming children,” Andrews said.
Phillips said he believes North Carolina is generally a welcoming state. He said refugee settlement is often a bipartisan issue.
But some North Carolina politicians, including Republican Governor Pat McCrory, have been reluctant to accept Syrian refugees in the past.
“We are here to help provide leadership and guidance to those elected officials and welcome them,” Phillips said. “(The refugees) are human beings just like everybody else. They have lives. They have hopes. They have dreams. They deserve and are granted the right to be safe and secure in their new homes.”
It’s important to realize that the United States is built on a diversity of backgrounds and experiences, Karpinos said.
“Given the current political climate that we have, a lot of people are worried that refugees are going to take their jobs or impact services in the country. But I think it’s extremely important to remember that we are a nation of refugees,” she said.
“Our country was built on the fact that we all came from different places and made a life, made a way of life here.”
CORRECTION: The original version of this article stated the wrong location for the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants North Carolina Field Office. The office is located in Raleigh. Southern Neighbor apologizes for the error.