Groups to aid refugee settlement in Wichita

10/30/2011 12:00 AM

10/30/2011 12:08 AM

Two groups that help rescue foreigners from war and oppression say they are arranging what they say will be the most significant refugee resettlement in Wichita since hundreds were resettled here from southeast Asia 30 years ago.

The Episcopal Wichita Area Refugee Ministry and the Wichita office of the International Rescue Committee say that refugees from Myanmar — also called Burma — Somalia, Bhutan, Iraq, Eritrea and other nations will begin arriving in the next few weeks.

The groups say as many as 180 refugees a year could come in for several years; the first few individuals and families will arrive in the next few weeks. The Episcopal group says it will bring in as many as 35 Burmese a year; the International Rescue Committee says it could bring in as many as 150 from other countries.

Officials from the rescue groups point out that the United States — though many of its citizens vigorously debate illegal immigration — has had a long-standing policy of inviting in tens of thousands of legal immigrants every year, including refugees in danger of death.

Bill Gress, a past director of immigration and refugee services for Catholic Charities in Wichita, said the refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos worked hard from the moment they arrived here, getting jobs, establishing businesses, learning English, doubling up in housing and saving money in other ways. They enriched our community and tax base, he said.

The two groups involved in the current resettlement say the refugees have been vetted by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. They will live at first on stipends and loans from the federal government but will be expected to immediately look for jobs, get an education and learn English. They will also be expected to establish themselves eventually as taxpayers.

The Rt. Rev. Dean Wolfe, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Kansas, and Chryle Nofsinger-Wiens, executive director of the International Rescue Committee, were scheduled to talk publicly Saturday about the new refugees and how they plan to get them settled in Wichita.

Among other things, Wolfe planned to say:

* That there are as many as 12 million to 15 million refugees in the world today, including 100,000 to 150,000 Burmese living in camps along the border between Burma and Thailand.

* In bringing people here, the rescue groups worked with, among other agencies, the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, as well as the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

* Episcopal Migration Ministries resettled 5,000 refugees in the United States in 2010.

Refugees are required by law to apply for permanent resident status one year after being admitted to the United States, rescue officials said. A permanent resident may work or serve in the military but may not vote or hold public elected office.

After five years, refugees who have completed the necessary requirements may become naturalized citizens with full rights and responsibilities of a U.S. citizen as specified in the Constitution.

Most new refugees will arrive with nothing more than satchels and the clothes on their backs, said Peg Flynn, who works for the Episcopal group.

"We will seek local partnerships, we'll be seeking strong faith-based support, and we will be talking to churches as co-sponsors," she said.

Nofsinger-Wiens said the new people will add to the depth of human experience in the community. She said she knows there will be questions from local people.

"I've had a few people ask, 'What are we going to do with them? We have to take care of our own,' " she said. "Well, we will take care of our own; but the United States has also always been one of the leaders in the world in taking care of refugees, too. This is part of who we are as a nation."

All the people coming here had to apply and had to be checked out, she said.

"They are not criminals; they are not terrorists."

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