A refugee may arrive in the United States without a home, without a means of support, or sometimes even without English language skills. And yet he or she can still reasonably expect to be self-sufficient within a few months.

“It really is pretty remarkable that people manage to do this,” says Stacie Blake, and she should know. Blake works for one of the refugee resettlement agencies that help these displaced people begin their new lives.

For Blake, the work resettlement agencies do every day is “our heritage …. It’s how our country was founded.”

The United States has resettled nearly 3 million refugees since 1975 — more than all other nations combined — and expects 85,000 more in the year ending September 30, 2016.

Choosing the right community

Refugee caseworker Ellen Ramage (left) assisting Iraqi refugee Muneer Khdur. (State Dept./D.A. Peterson)
Refugee caseworker Ellen Ramage (left) assists Iraqi refugee Muneer Khdur. (State Dept./D.A. Peterson)

Working with hundreds of local networks and volunteers, Blake and her resettlement agency colleagues direct newly arrived refugees to the best community for them. They try to find neighborhoods where there are others who speak their language and share their culture, and where there are suitable schools, elder care facilities, accessible public transportation and other services.

Newly arrived refugees typically find work quickly. Host communities are “very well integrated” with local employers who “depend on these new workers” to fill jobs at hotels, restaurants, shops and manufacturing plants, Blake observes.

And that first job is just a start. As a resettled refugee, “you can learn English and improve your position, get a promotion … [or] go back to school,” Blake says.

Sheila Shinn teaches an English language class for new arrivals in Philadelphia. (State Dept./D.A. Peterson)
Sheila Shinn teaches an English language class for new arrivals in Philadelphia. (State Dept./D.A. Peterson)

Or move. Like any American, new arrivals are free to move anywhere within the United States. They can apply for citizenship after five years.

For Blake, one of the most rewarding parts of her work is speaking to potential landlords and employers who make the connection to their own immigrant ancestors. They are excited to welcome the newcomers.

“That’s really the best of America. To me, that’s who we are, and I have the privilege of seeing that play out day after day,” she said.