No refuge in Wyoming?

By on March 18, 2014

JACKSON, WYO – Debate ensues over refugee resettlement in Cowboy State

When Bertine Bahige arrived in Baltimore, MD, after spending two years as a child soldier and the rest of his teenage years alone in a dark and dusty refugee camp in Mozambique, he began earning money to pay off his airfare washing dishes at Burger King. He didn’t know what became of his mother and nine siblings who were tortured in the Democratic Republic of Congo by rebel groups fleeing Rwanda in 1994.

Now a high school math teacher and father to two young children, Bahige graduated from University of Wyoming and married a Gillette native. He coaches soccer and volunteers his time to help kids get college scholarships, like the one that brought him to Wyoming.

And he has begun a controversial campaign to see if he can bring his four siblings, that he recently located at a refugee camp in Uganda, to Wyoming.

“I would love to have them resettled here,” Bahige said, stressing that his 17-year-old sister has been “fighting for her survival” as a victim of sexual abuse. “But that’s not the sole reason I am doing this. Wyoming would benefit greatly from a program. People have to be educated that refugees are not illegal. We are not just going someplace and packing people into trucks.”

Wyoming is the only state in the nation that does not have a refugee resettlement program. But that may change, despite widespread objections about what it will cost and heightened fears about who might be relocated to the Equality State.

In fall 2013, Gov. Matt Mead opened the door to discussion about creating a safe haven for refugees, defined as men, women and children fleeing war, persecution and political upheaval. Ever since, his office has been working with University of Wyoming Law Professor Suzan Pritchett, whose partner, Noah Novogrodsky, discussed the advocacy program with Jackson Hole students when he visited the valley this winter.

“The Governor’s office and the State of Wyoming have authority on whether or not the program is created,” Pritchett wrote in an email. “Right now they are moving in that direction, but nothing is certain. We were motivated to advocate that Wyoming become a refugee resettlement state, and to work with the Governor’s office on the program, because we were approached by Bertine Bahige.

“I’m not aware of the order in which other states have joined the program, but Wyoming would be the last state to join if it goes forward with the program,” she said. “Before a state can officially participate in the federal program, the state must have drafted a state plan that outlines how the program will work in that particular state.”

Pritchett said that Wyoming’s resources, including open space, relatively low unemployment and supportive communities like Gillette are great resources for more success stories to come.

But an exchange of recent letters to the editor in Wyoming newspapers about the resettlement program have sparked political debate that has the potential to stymie the program and spread misinformation in an election year.

In a recent letter to the editor (found on page 4 of this issue of PJH), Mead said that he is working with the University of Wyoming College of Law, nonprofit agencies, and churches, which are often one of the first points of contact for refugees, to “understand and evaluate options for a Wyoming plan.”

“Wyoming is not setting up a refugee camp,” said Renny Mackay, Mead’s communication director, adding that hundreds of people are calling the governor’s office in opposition to the plan. “This is still very preliminary.”

Mead’s letter comes on the heels of a letter written by Republican gubernatorial challenger Dr. Taylor Haynes, who calls Mead into question for taking steps to establish a “public-private center to help refugees” with the Office of Refugee Resettlement. Haynes said refugees from East Africa and Somalia in particular have increased violence and overburdened the welfare system in Europe.

“Violence is the only coping means they know,” he wrote.

Haynes, a Cheyenne urologist, engineer and rancher, announced his candidacy for governor in February, citing a need to diminish federal interference in the management of Wyoming’s natural resources. “We must very sternly question the governor’s motive for making this request,” Haynes wrote. “Could it be federal dollars funded to private charities; to manage the re-settlement of these refugees? If so, which charities have been selected to receive the grant? What are their connections to the governor?”

The African American candidate, who grew up on a produce farm in Louisiana, shares a lot of the values about hard work and self-discipline that brought Bahige to the Equality State nine years ago.

“I was given that opportunity and I’m grateful to call Gillette home,” Bahige said. “This is the place where I have roots. I am planting roots for my future generations. I’m not saying that we should take 1,000 refugees. But I think it’s a good idea to start a program. Let’s put it on the table and see. We are starting from an empty slate. Wyoming can decide what parameters.”

The refugees next door
In 2012 the U.S. accepted 56,000 refugees, according to the president’s report to congress for fiscal year 2013, with more than 1,000 relocating to Utah and Idaho. The president determines the number after consulting with congress and sets a budget of more than $1 billion annually for resettlement that is split between the Department of State, Department of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services. In 2010, it increased the grant from $900 to $1,800 per refugee to cover their cost of arrival.

Because of its cost of living, Utah is one of several states that accepts refugees that do not have friends or family in the U.S., according to Aden Batar, director of immigration and refugee resettlement for Catholic Community Service of Utah. His organization placed 650 refugees last year, half the 1,200 refugees that went to Utah.

“We have over 15,000 refugees here and it’s beautiful. On June 20th we celebrate a refugee day and the rich culture they bring to our state,” Batar said. “The majority of our refugees do get jobs and provide for their families.”

As a Somalian refugee himself, Batar’s 30-member staff is comprised of 70 percent refugees. Catholic Community Services place refugees with a support group within a parish, which picks them up at the airport and provides them with their first hot meal. Case managers then follow the refugees for two years to make sure they have access to language, medical and transportation support.

Education, he said, is often a stumbling block to a community acceptance of refugees. But once people understand the hardships these refugees have been through and their desire to give back to the community, they create a lasting bond.

Cowboy State confliction
Wyoming State Rep. Marti Halverson (R), said one “outstanding positive example of a refugee man in Gillette” is an inadequate basis, in my opinion, for committing Wyoming to participation in this program without a comprehensive plan.

In an email response, Halverson asked a lot of her own questions:

“Dr. Taylor Haynes, wrote on March 9th about resettlements gone horribly wrong. Which example demonstrates the norm? What is the average experience among the states? I would ask other states if they would opt out of the program if given the chance, or continue their participation? Is there an option to cancel participation?

“I would rather Governor Mead had waited to sign the participation commitment letter with the Office of Refugee Resettlement (September 5, 2013) AFTER efforts had been completed ‘to understand the issue’ and ‘learning more on the issue,’ as he states in his March 14 letter.

“Does the governor’s September 2013 letter of commitment to participate in the refugee resettlement program put Wyoming in an in-for-a-penny-in-for-a-pound situation?” Halverson asked. “Can Wyoming residents ask that a plan accepts refugees from some country and not others? Or, of some race and not another? Of some sexual preference and not another? Political agitators of one philosophy and not another? I shudder to think where this conversation could take us.”

Rep. Ruth Ann Petroff (R), takes a different stand, supporting Mead’s efforts. “To me, this just makes sense,” she said. “Frankly, I think people are concerned about something that isn’t controversial. The fact is that they are already coming here. It’s probably not the smartest thing to ignore it. We need to know what works and what doesn’t work.”

Coaching soccer is just one way Bahige is involved with the youth. PHOTO COURTESY OF BERTINE BAHIGE

Coaching soccer is just one way Bahige is involved with the youth. PHOTO COURTESY OF BERTINE BAHIGE

Working toward a better life
The International Rescue Committee, a nonprofit organization that helps refugees find housing, overcome cultural barriers and eventually become citizens, helps as many as 10,000 refugees a year, a fraction of the world’s 42 million displaced people. Only one third, or 14 million, are considered refugees because they have crossed an international border. Eighty percent of the world’s refugees are women and children. And only one percent of that 14 million come to the United States per year.

IRC is one of several non-governmental organizations that works with the Department of State to ensure that refugees coming to America understand that they are expected to be self sufficient and complete an assurance process in which the resettlement organization agrees to match a refugee with a local advocate.

According to the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants website, “The resettlement organization determines where in the United States the refugee will be resettled based on the availability of housing, employment, needed services, readiness of host community, and a variety of other factors. However, if a refugee has a relative in the United States, every effort is made to resettle the refugee near that relative.” Refugees also must complete a medical examination prior to and after admittance, a security clearance and a cultural orientation.

The will to make it
For Bahige, it didn’t take long for him to work his way up to taking orders at Burger King, his first job in America. He rode his bike seven miles each way to make sure he wouldn’t be late for classes at a community college and took a second job as a lunchroom monitor at a Baltimore elementary school to pay for it. There, he learned he wanted to teach.

“The first thing you have to do is get a job within six months,” Bahige explained. “You receive a letter from immigration to pay the plane ticket. One thing that I would like to educate people about is these are people trying to find their way. It’s not a welfare program where people depend on the government.”

Last summer Bahige was chosen by the United Nations to give a talk in Geneva about his resettlement. He said he was humbled and honored to share his “American dream” story.

“It breaks my heart that there are a lot of misconceptions out there about refugees,” Bahige said. “The experiences I have gone through help me connect to my students. I can sympathize and empathize. I tell my students, ‘I’ve been here and there, and you are in a better situation.’ It’s that contribution that can help. You should see the reaction of my students. They see that I’m sharing something about myself but I’m learning as well. It gives them extra motivation.”

About Julie Fustanio Kling

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