Refugee office holds first information session (Andy Telli, Tennessee Register)

Posted 01/15/2016

The Tennessee Office of Refugees held its first information session on the refugee resettlement program and drew nearly 20 people, far more than expected, said Holly Johnson, state refugee coordinator.

"I would have been thrilled to have five people here," said Johnson. "We wanted people not sure they like the refugee program and we had them; we wanted staff from resettlement agencies and we had them; we wanted board members of resettlement agencies and we had that."

During the early morning meeting, held Wednesday, Jan. 13, at the Catholic Pastoral Center, the Tennessee Office of Refugees staff gave an overview of the refugee resettlement program and answered questions, which addressed topics such as the cost of resettling refugees and who decides which refugees are resettled in Tennessee.

The goal of the session was "simply providing factual information, so if they don't know about refugees they can learn," Johnson said. "I want people to make up their own minds but I want them to make them up based on facts."

Through 2007, the State of Tennessee administered the refugee resettlement program. After the state decided to give up responsibility for the program, the federal government contracted with the Tennessee Office of Refugees, a department of the Catholic Charities of Tennessee, to take over administration of the program beginning in 2008.

The refugee resettlement program begins overseas when refugees apply with the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees office. "Resettlement is a solution for less than 1 percent of people worldwide," said Maegen Hughes, communications coordinator for the Tennessee Office of Refugees.

The applicants undergo an intense screening process, which involves several U.S. federal law enforcement and security agencies, explained Hughes.

Screeners are trained to recognize discrepancies in the applicants' background and paperwork, Hughes said. "If something new comes up, the process starts over."

If an applicant is accepted for resettlement, the country they will be resettled to is selected and the applicants undergo cultural orientation. The United States accepts the most refugees each year and ranks third in the refugees accepted per capita, explained Johnson.

Once the U.S. government agrees to resettle a refugee, they are assigned to one of nine national agencies that resettle refugees. Those agencies then decide which city to relocate the refugee based on the local agencies' capability to help refugees establish their home, including prospects for finding a job, Hughes said.

The Tennessee Office of Refugees works with partner agencies in Nashville, Knoxville, Chattanooga and Memphis, and provides federal funding for services, programming, and up to eight months of cash assistance for refugees to the partner agencies, which directly serve the refugees, Hughes said.

Between 1,500 and 1,800 refugees are resettled in Tennessee each year, Johnson said.

People can help support refugees by volunteering with a resettlement agency, through gifts, both financial and in-kind, and with advocacy, Hughes said. "Being an advocate is incredibly important," and does not have to be in the political arena, she said. People can be advocates within their own circle of friends, neighbors and co-workers by providing accurate information and battling some of the myths that surround the program, she said.

The Tennessee Office of Refugees hopes to hold the information sessions quarterly, Johnson said. Although the first was held at 7:30 a.m. to accommodate people as they headed to work, she and her staff are open to holding them at different times and locations, Johnson said.


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