Cities taking in refugees can learn from Fort Wayne

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – The Summit City has a rich history of helping refugees and that experience could translate to valuable knowledge for other U.S. cities.

Congress is considering how many additional refugees should be allowed into the country over the next fiscal year, which begins October 1. Leaders in Washington are looking to accepting 10,000 Syrian refugees, compared to the 1,500 people who resettled in the country over the past 12 months.

Syrian refugees could end up in a city that may have little experience resettling people, but could learn from Fort Wayne’s history with the Burmese.

The Catholic Charities of the Fort Wayne-South Bend Diocese has been the only local organization with government support to help refugees resettle in Fort Wayne.

“Burmese refugees we’ve been resettling have been through the same atrocities that the Syrians are facing right now,” said Catholic Charities CEO Gloria Whitecraft, who added that her organization has helped refugees resettle in the area since the 1970s.

Each year the organization is asked to bring in a different number of refugees. During fiscal year 2015, which is nearing an end, Catholic Charities was asked to resettle 225 Burmese refugees.

“We’re the first ones in the United States they interact with,” said Whitcraft. “We actually meet them at the airport.”

Whitcraft said there are always challenges when people move to a new country. A City of Fort Wayne spokesperson listed challenges city leaders face that include, “language barriers, housing, jobs, transportation, and getting acclimated to new surroundings.”

Those were the same issues Whitcraft said she and her staff have seen over the years. She added that the biggest hurdle for refugees is adapting to and understanding the American culture.

“It does depend on what country you’re coming from and if it’s a developed country,” said Whitcraft. “The first 90 days they’re here we give them our core services. We teach them about our laws, how to get around town, and how to find the ethnic foods they’re used to.

The education industry also has setup programs to help refugees adjust.

“Kindergarten Countdown is a program for at-risk children,” said East Allen County Schools Superintendent Dr. Ken Folks. “Many of the at-risk children at EACS are children who are refugee children who do not have English as their first language. The program offered an opportunity to come in for a four-week program and they got a chance to see what school is like because they’ve never been in a school.”

Whitcraft said Fort Wayne is unlikely to be asked to take in Syrian refugees as they would be sent to other U.S. cities that already have a large Syrian population.

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