Guest Commentary

Today we celebrate new Americans and those who help them

Kansas Governor Laura Kelly recently signed a proclamation honoring the work of Kansas refugee resettlement agencies and celebrating our immigrant heritage.

It is no surprise that Kansas welcomes refugees fleeing wars and persecution. It has always been like this. Kansans today owe much to those who braved the seas or the southwest deserts to come and help make our state what it is today.

It is impossible to think about Kansas without acknowledging immigrants’ role in shaping our world. What would southeast Kansas be like without Italians? Or Ellis County without Volga Germans? A lasting presence of Mennonites, Czechs, Lebanese, Mexicans and other religious and national groups, have contributed immeasurably to the rich cultural, social and economic fabric of Kansas and Wichita.

Today the world is in the grip of the greatest humanitarian crisis in history. More than 70 million people are displaced; 25 million are forced to live outside their nations of origin because of their ethnicity, race, religion, political views or membership in a social group and are designated as refugees by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

In 2011, the International Rescue Committee opened a refugee-resettlement office in Wichita. In partnership with the federal government and with strong support from the community, more than 1000 refugees now call Wichita home. More than half are women or girls, more than half are children. A sizeable minority are Afghan SIVs—Special Immigrant Visa holders, who worked for the US Military or intelligence in Afghanistan and were promised protection by the US in exchange for their help

Refugees come with nothing but what they can carry and within six months of arrival, 85% of adults are employed, self-sufficient and making payments on their travel loans, thanks to a rigorous program of English language training, cultural orientation and job skills training. Refugees transform themselves into new Americans who more than pay their own way. Much of this is a credit to IRC’s wonderful staff, but we couldn’t do it without community support or donor contributions.

Please don’t get lost in the numbers, they represent real people. Dorcas, a young woman, is a graduate of Wichita North, taking Gen-Ed classes at WSU-Tech, hoping to earn the money to fulfill her dream of attending Kansas State. Blaise is a young man whose earliest memories include running from gunshots. He is now a machine operator for a local manufacturer. Gedeon works in a meat packing plant near Wichita, no matter his Master’s Degree in Public Health from a French University’s African satellite campus.

Wichita is a welcoming community. The faith community, employers and local and state governments have all helped. Kansas has a tradition of welcoming immigrants and benefiting from their presence. Gov. Kelly’s proclamation fits squarely within this tradition.

UNHCR has designated June 20 as ‘World Refugee Day’ to draw attention to the plight of refugees worldwide. Gov. Kelly’s proclamation makes June 20 “World Refugee Day in Kansas.” Please join with us in celebrating these new Americans and honoring all those who work to make them welcome.

Michele Green is executive director of the International Rescue Committee in Wichita