By Paul Ndiho
The United States is the world’s top refugee resettlement country. More refugees have resettled in the western state of California more than any other state over the past seven years, according to the United Nation High Commission for Refugees data. Former African Refugees in San Diego, California are giving back to the community that once helped them.
The United States admits tens of thousands of refugees each year, fueled by successions of strife around the world — from Syria – Congo DRC – South Sudan – Burundi and from Somalia – Iraq. Despite U.S. President Donald Trump’s limited travel ban restricting travelers, refugees and immigrants the United States remains one of the top destination for refugee resettlement according to UNHCR, which works in close collaboration with U.S. governmental agencies and NGOs responsible for resettling refugees in the country.
El Cajon city in San Diego County, California has become a hub for such resettlement. There are many agencies and support groups for refugees, but one of the most important is the Alliance for African Assistance an NGO founded by Walter Lam over 20 years ago, to help refugees resettle in San Diego and adjust to American life and culture.
Walter Lam, arrived here in the United States from Uganda more than 30 years ago as a refugee. Today he is giving back to the community that once helped him. And So far he his organization has resettled refugees hundreds from over 20 different countries.
“One key thing that we know about refugees that are coming in here, all of them that are coming in here, if you talk about those that have children, they want their children to go to school. They want their children not to go through the suffering that they went through. That’s the primary reason why all refugees are coming in here and then becoming productive citizens of the United States.”
Resettling experts say 2017 is by far the worst year for refugees attempting to transition to the United States because of the restrictions imposed by President Trump. These affect travelers and refugees to the U.S. In June; President Trump applauded the decision by the US Supreme Court to allow part if his revised travel ban to take effect until it reviews the issue definitively in October.
The executive order prohibits granting new visas for travelers from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen for 90 days, and suspends the U.S. refugee program for 120 days. For Walter Lam, this travel ban has created confusion.
“When I talk with our colleagues in Nairobi, we I talk with people that are processing refugees overseas, all they tell us is “nothing is known at the moment.” It is meaningless for them to give hope to the refugees and start processing, telling them they “may be coming.”
Despite these hurdles, Lam maintains a positive attitude and says this travel ban will pass and hope to continue with his mission of helping refugees.
“The future of refugees program, at the moment, is completely unknown. At the beginning of the year this year, the state department had authorized us to resettle 950 refugees. And remember, we have three months to go now, to end the fiscal year. Right now we have resettled 422.”
Another Refugee giving back to the community is Zainab Danso, who fled conflict in her native country, the Democratic Republic of Congo, over 20 years ago. Zainab, along with other family members lived in a refugee camp in Uganda. As luck would have it, in 2015, Zainab, along with the other family members were resettled in El Cajon, San Diego under the UNHCR resettlement program.
Zainab started working as a volunteer the Alliance for African assistance as a case manager. Her mission is to give back to the community and help newly arrived refugees find their footing.
The fact that I’ve helped people become self-sufficient makes me happy. It is part of me to help another person, and another person to be self-sufficient in America. I am glad to hear that young lady, helped me do such and such a thing. She helped me find a job; she helped me find my first job in America, which is the very most important thing right now. I mean touching people’s lives.
UNHCR says once a refugee has resettled in the U.S., they are assigned a “sponsor” when a case is approved, and the resettlement agency assures their case. For Zainab, she says helping refugees is not without its challenges especially if they don’t speak English.
Try to put some little English classes for the refugees so that when they come here their life is a little bit easier. They can study some English from the camp, not to start English from here. I mean, back in the camps they don’t do anything. Apart from going to their appointments UNHCR, IOM, they can have little English classes before they come to the US.”
El Cajon is home to an estimated 60,000 recent immigrants from Iraq and parts of Africa alone. The police department is actively trying to engage the immigrant and refugee population. El Cajon police has stared community outreach — where police officers are working directly with newly arrived immigrants, for them to feel like they are part of the community. My colleague, Solomon Serwanjja from our partner TV station NBS, asked Chief Davis about community policing.
“The refugee populations, regardless of what country they come over from, Middle Eastern country, Iraq, Syria, Uganda. First of all, the people we see coming over, they are very appreciative to be here. They want to assimilate, and they want to learn and as far as behavior. There are no problems. It is incumbent upon us, I feel, as the police department, to reach out to the refugee community and ask them what their needs are. To educate them on what law enforcement can provide—the services.”
But the city has also had its share of racial turbulence, especially in the wake of the fatal shooting in September 2016 of Alfred Olango, an unarmed Ugandan refugee, by an El Cajon police officer. Despite this setback, Chief Davis, is optimistic about immigrants and refugees settling in the United States.
A State department website says the U.S. refugee resettlement program reflects the United States’ highest values and aspirations to compassion, generosity, and leadership. Since 1975, Americans have welcomed over 3 million refugees from all over the world. Refugees have built new lives, homes, and communities in towns and cities in all 50 states.