Congo refugees

Kathy Nichols, center, goes through English flash cards with Odetta Nyirabageni, left, and Segafuni Muhanuka at their Ogden apartment on April 12, 2018. Nichols was volunteering with some of the Congolese refugees in Ogden, placed here through Catholic Community Services. CCS and other advocates expect more refugees in the months to come owing to changes under the administration of President Joe Biden.

With the change in U.S. presidential administrations, Utah advocates for refugees from foreign hot spots are expecting a jump in the numbers coming here.

What’s more, they’re welcoming it.

“We’re so thrilled,” said Asha Parekh, director of the Utah Department of Workforce Services' Refugee Services Office. “It’s great news that the presidential determination is higher, that refugees can come back to Utah.”

Aden Batar, director of migration and refugee services for Catholic Community Services, is also eager. He’s preparing the way so the agency — which placed a contingent from the Democratic Republic of Congo in Ogden starting back in 2016 — can handle the expected increase through the summer and into the fall.

“I think it’s important because there are so many refugees in the world today,” said Batar. “We want to continue our leadership in the world as humanitarian.”

President Donald Trump slashed the number of refugees allowed into the United States during his administration. From around 110,000 per year in the last year of President Barack Obama’s administration, Trump gradually whittled the number to 15,000 for fiscal year 2021, which goes through Sept. 30, according to Batar. One of the upshots of the reduction, he said, has been difficulty in reuniting refugees who have relocated to the United States with loved ones hoping to come here.

President Joe Biden, though, who took office in late January, plans to increase the 15,000 figure for the current fiscal year to 62,500, the bump it up even more next year, possibly to 125,000, Batar said. A Feb. 12 report to Congress from the U.S. State Department underscores the importance that his administration puts on refugee resettlement efforts.

“A robust refugee admissions program is critical to U.S. foreign policy interests and national security objectives. Refugee protection is a concrete demonstration of the United States’ commitment to human rights, including freedom of religion and belief and freedom of expression, and is necessary to mobilize other countries to meet their humanitarian obligations,” the report reads.

Federal lawmakers created the U.S. refugee program in 1980. It’s geared to those in other countries who face persecution or fear of persecution due to race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.

How many exactly come to Utah through September as the refugee program kicks back into gear remains to be seen, but Parekh suspects the figure could reach as high as 600. That’s lower than the 1,245 that came in 2016, during Obama’s tenure, but more than the 238 that came in fiscal year 2020 under Trump, according to figures she provided.

Batar said CCS, one of two agencies that helps place refugees in Utah, could help with as many as 200-300 of that 600 total. The International Rescue Committee in Utah is the other agency that helps place refugees.

Whatever the final figure, Batar is eager to assist more refugees, lamenting the dip in numbers through Trump’s tenure as president. Indeed, the agency is starting recruitment now for its refugee foster care program, seeking families north of Salt Lake City all the way to Logan to help out. “We have been ready for the last four years,” Batar said.

Where any refugees coming to Utah come from and where they’re placed remains to be seen. Parekh, though, says Utah is welcoming to refugees and she senses enough support to absorb the number that come here.

Refugees placed in Utah have come from Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries, according to Batar.

Contact reporter Tim Vandenack at tvandenack@standard.net, follow him on Twitter at @timvandenack or like him on Facebook at Facebook.com/timvandenackreporter.

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