Refugee Resettlement and Integration: Exploring a European Perspective with the International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP)
Recently, the World Affairs Council of Seattle coordinated a professional program for a European delegation, all of whom have expertise in the resettlement and integration of refugees and asylum seekers. The visitors were nominated by their respective nations to participate in the U.S. Department of State’s International Visitor Leadership Program. This flagship program works to foster mutual understanding between the United States and other nations through the exchange of people and ideas. Specifically, the objective for this group was to examine interagency and multisector efforts to combat discrimination and integrate immigrants and refugees into local communities around the country. The group spent three weeks in the United States visiting five cities including Washington, DC, Baltimore, MD, Portland, ME, Atlanta, GA, and Seattle, WA. Their visit comes at a stimulating time for the United States, when the issue of immigration is a hotly contested topic in this presidential election year.
In a world of increasing globalization, international cooperation on critical issues is of paramount importance. Almost all of the countries that these visitors represent handle the refugee issue differently than the United States. The visitor from Sweden for example, who works at the Ministry of Justice in the Division for Migration and Asylum Policy, found it very interesting that in the United States there is a general consensus about the need to accept more immigrants on a civic, local, and state level, but the federal government is more reluctant. This visitor noted that in Sweden it is the opposite: the government is willing to pass legislation to accept more refugees, but the people are more resistant. It is important to note that geopolitics play a considerable factor, as Sweden has now been forced to potentially start expelling excess asylum seekers since more than 160,000 came to Sweden in 2015, the most per capita of any European country.
While there are these differences, two aspects that were agreed upon were the need to combat discrimination, and the importance of diversification. One of the first meetings that the delegates participated in was at the City of Tukwila Office of Human Services, where they met with the Mayor, the Tukwila Police Department, and the superintendent of the Tukwila School District. 71% of the students in the Tukwila School District represent a minority, making it the most diverse school district in the nation. With so many non-native English speakers, effective communication between teachers, students, officials, and especially the police, is important. To enable a more homogenous and inclusive community, the Tukwila Police Department has created an outreach program to meet the needs of the people by interacting with the community while being mindful of cultural differences. Many immigrants who arrive in the United States have drastically varied experiences when it comes to the police, and the Tukwila police department is working diligently to remove the “us versus them” mindset that many immigrants still have. Of particular interest to the Croatian visitor, who is the Director of the Department for the Protection of Migrants, was the focus on community work leading to civic engagement and the focus on mental health and trauma rehabilitation. The delegation agreed that to fully integrate immigrants into the local community, many of whom have fled from violent conflict or persecution, their mental health must be addressed and mindfulness training is paramount.
Above: The delegation at the Office of Human Services in Tukwila, with members of the Tukwila School District and the Mayor.
Another strategy for dealing with trauma is to facilitate a discussion about it. At White Center Promise, the delegates were appreciative of the organization’s efforts as a network for integrating new Americans by introducing them to other community based organizations. They were particularly fascinated with programs such as The Big Read. This program, funded by a grant, involves visual storytelling and is used as a safe place to talk about experiences and participate in cross-cultural dialogue. Through activities like this, people are able to discuss any loss of identity that they might feel when, as one Estonian immigrant said, he must “put on my American mask.” Along with programs for self-advocacy, White Center Promise believes that speaking up for oneself is pivotal and therefore knowing English is critical. Thus, they expose immigrants to English as a Second Language (ESL) classes.
Located on the outskirts of SeaTac, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) is one of five main resettlement agencies in Washington that has encountered problems finding affordable housing. With upwards of 4,000 immigrants arriving in Seattle per year, space is becoming incredibly limited and employment opportunities are inadequate as well. For example, when the delegates were at the IRC, the gentleman who escorted them in was a refugee from Iraq who had been the head of a surgical unit. This doctor had fled from Iraq with his two daughters but was unable to find a job as a doctor. In order to continue working as a doctor in the United States, he would have to retrain at a medical school, but he cannot afford to do so. This is just one of the numerous challenges that immigrants and refugees struggle with on a daily basis.
The delegates concluded their stay in the United States with a final wrap-up meeting in which they praised the number of community and NGO programs available in the United States. Upon their return to their home countries, they will work towards refining their own programs through their improved understanding of refugee resettlement and integration in the United States. The World Affairs Council looks forward to hearing more about their success and efforts!
Above: Lunch break on Broadway, Capitol Hill.
By Yale Warner, International Visitor Program Intern and
High School Senior at Seattle Academy