Monday, October 25, 2010

Burmese refugee curbs shut resettlement office

FORT WAYNE – One of Fort Wayne’s two refugee placement offices will close, a consequence of the federal government’s limitations on the number of refugees sent to the city.
World Relief, a faith-based international humanitarian aid organization, opened an office at Simpson United Methodist Church on South Harrison Street less than two years ago in anticipation of an increased flow of refugees.
The U.S. State Department resettled about 800 Burmese refugees in the Fort Wayne area the year before the office opened. Refugees have been fleeing persecution in Myanmar, as Burma is called by the ruling military government, for years.
The high number being sent here had social services agencies seeking help, and World Relief said it hoped to ease some of the strain on Catholic Charities of Fort Wayne-South Bend, the sole agency tasked with placing refugees in the area.
But the State Department has since severely restricted the number of refugees who can be sent to the Fort Wayne area, and World Relief’s local office has welcomed only about half the number of refugees for which it was approved.
Calls to World Relief’s headquarters in Baltimore and Midwest office in Illinois were not returned Thursday. Dan Kosten, World Relief vice president of U.S. Programs, said in a statement the organization has tried to have the restrictions loosened.
Without more refugees, keeping the office open isn’t viable, he said.
Officials at the non-profit’s headquarters told Jeff Keplar, executive director of the Fort Wayne office, on Oct. 15 that his office would close.
That evening, he went to the city’s airport to welcome the last refugee on behalf of World Relief Fort Wayne – a 75-year-old Burmese woman joining family here.
It’s a trip he’s made more than 100 times, and it was bittersweet to see the gratitude on the family’s faces, Keplar said.
“If you’ve been through what they’ve been through, knowing someone cares makes all the difference,” he said.
Catholic Charities Executive Director Debbie Schmidt said Thursday her organization has worked with World Relief in many ways over the past few months.
“They provided a great service,” she said.
Resettlement agencies, through a public-private agreement with the federal government, welcome refugees at the airport; assist with housing, food and basic needs; and coordinate their access to medical services, English classes, children’s schooling, government benefits and other needs.
For the service, the agencies are given a one-time grant per refugee. For many years, the grant was $900, until early this year when the State Department doubled that.
After World Relief Fort Wayne opened, the State Department limited refugee placement in the city to those who have parents, grandparents, children, grandchildren or siblings already living in the city.
Fort Wayne and Detroit were the only two cities to have such restrictions. In June, at the request of placement agencies, the State Department modified Detroit’s restriction to allow the placement of any refugees in the Detroit metro region who have ties there.
“This change should have the positive effect of strengthening family reunification and lessening secondary migration from other placement sites to the Detroit area,” a statement from the Department of State’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration said.
Secondary migration occurs when refugees are resettled in one city and leave for another. That has contributed to a Burmese refugee population in Fort Wayne that has been estimated to be the country’s largest.
Keplar thinks the restriction did not lessen the influx of refugees; instead, it might have contributed to secondary migration of refugees who arrived in the city without the support system of a resettlement agency.
But he said he prefers to focus on the positive effects his agency had in such a short time. Being a bridge between new refugees and churches and people who want to helpwas a rewarding experience for all involved, he said.
“I’m going to miss that,” he said. “I can’t walk away from that.”