WASHINGTON — War, conflict and persecution drive people from their home countries across the globe.
The United Nations high commissioner for refugees, Filippo Grandi, was in Washington recently highlighting the importance of the United States’ efforts to help those who have been forced to flee from their homes.
“This is a global phenomenon as we have seen with the arrivals in Europe, with new massive crises in Africa, in Bangladesh and so forth,” Grandi told The World-Herald. “The message is: U.S. leadership is needed.”
The United States already is a major financial contributor to humanitarian programs that support refugees, he said, but it’s important to continue that support and also to dedicate sufficient resources to receive and process refugees.
A recent Associated Press analysis of refugee arrival data predicts that about 20,000 refugees will come this year, far below the more than 53,000 that came in 2017.
Grandi said it’s in America’s national interest to address humanitarian crises. Hanging in the balance, after all, is the stability of areas such as the Middle East and Asia, which hold strategic importance to the United States.
He noted approvingly that Nebraska took in more refugees per capita in 2016 than any other state. Lincoln, for example, boasts a large Yazidi population.
Aides cited Nebraska refugee programs that they said are making a difference, including the work of the Omaha Refugee Task Force and agencies such as Lutheran Family Services.
Public discussion often focuses on potential disadvantages of welcoming refugees, from security risks to economic effects, and not enough on the many positive aspects, Grandi said.
“In the end, these people become producers, taxpayers, good citizens,” Grandi said.
Social worker Kaela Volkmer was among the St. Wenceslaus Catholic Church parishioners who welcomed a Syrian family to the area in December 2016.
Although Volkmer has since moved to a different parish, she continues to be involved with the family.
She said challenges included getting the family members transportation early on — they are living in Elkhorn, where access to public transportation is limited. And navigating the bureaucracy can be difficult.
“I speak the language and have the education, and still my head spins when I’m on the phone trying to figure some of these things out,” Volkmer said.
However, the family is making great progress with the help of the community, she said, with the children getting a lot of attention in school and the father now driving a donated car.
Volkmer understands that some Americans are afraid that refugees might pose a risk but she said refugees are extensively vetted and enrich the communities they join.
“They’re scared of terrorism, too,” she said. “That’s what they’re running from. That’s what they’ve been victims of. They’re looking for a safe place that they can call home.”
Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., a member of the House Appropriations Committee who has focused on international issues, agreed that the United States plays an important role when it comes to refugees.
And he cited the Yazidis as a great example of refugees contributing to their community.
But he also said there’s too much reliance on the United States and that the international approach to refugees could use a rethinking.
“The 21st century architecture for diplomatic relationships is going to be built on authenticity, not just the fact that the United States became the world’s superpower 75 years ago after World War II and therefore is expected to carry the load by ourselves,” Fortenberry said. “That’s the reality.”
He said those “authentic partnerships,” an examination of refugee missions and measurable outcomes are necessary.
“We will not do this by ourselves anymore,” Fortenberry said. “We will not carry the burden alone, especially when other economies have advanced, when other countries want to take a rightful place at the leadership table in international affairs.”