Faces of Migration

efugee resettlement in the NW corner of the U.S.: “An honor and a privilege”

Matthew Westerbeck (right end of the bottom row) at work at Portland International Airport

Catholic Charities of Oregon has been resettling refugees since the end of WWII. Every few weeks we welcome the world’s most vulnerable as our newest neighbors. Most families we help have been in refugee camps for over a decade. Many have been waiting to resettle to the United States for more than 20 years.

Persecuted and driven from their homes for reasons of race, ethnicity, membership in a social group, political opinion or religion, these families have passed the most rigorous security screening to enter our country. Often, the majority of their children have been born in refugee camps. Looking ahead, I fear that we are welcoming our last refugee families to the U.S., and to Oregon, and that we will no longer continue to be a country of refuge.

As Program Manger for Refugee Services, I have the incredible honor of working with a team of dedicated volunteers and social workers. Our team welcomes the stranger and walks alongside newly- and recently-arrived refugee families as they rebuild their lives. We have just a few weeks to prepare for an arrival and we must find and furnish housing. With teams of volunteers we accomplish move-ins in just hours. Many of those volunteers will be at the airport to welcome the family. These airport greetings show arriving families that they are welcomed and appreciated in the U.S. The rhetoric that refugees are not wanted here has made its way to the refugee camps. We’ve had families scared to walk off the plane due to that rhetoric.

Upon arrival, our staff have 30 days to perform the following with refugee families: home orientation and safety; provide a 10-course curriculum on Cultural Orientation; assist in enrolling the children in school; enroll the adults in ESL classes and employment services; help the family learn to use mass transit; ensure everyone receives medical care and screenings; help get a state ID and apply for Social Security cards; assist young men sign up for Selective Service; help learn grocery shopping; help write a resume and apply for jobs; help sign up for a bank account; teach how to pay utility bills; provide instruction for paying back the loan for their airfare to the U.S.; educate on who to call if there’s an emergency; help creating a budget with unfamiliar currency; etc.

Our team strives daily to embody welcoming the stranger and providing refuge. We walk alongside our newest neighbors as they rebuild their lives and provide better lives for their children. Their kids will enter college at the same rates as U.S.-born children born. Most of their children will have higher household incomes than the average U.S. family. Refugees will open businesses at a higher rate than for the native-born population. And more important than the strength they add to our communities as economic contributors is the connection we all share. We are all sisters and brothers. We can’t forget this simple teaching. As a part of the amazing Refugee Services team at Catholic Charities, I am reminded of this daily. It is an honor and a privilege to share in this work.

Matthew Westerbeck
Catholic Charities of Oregon

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