| 03.18.2018

Somewhere far from home – A panel of UI students and faculty discusses the refugee crisis with the local community


University of Idaho student Ayo Popoola knows first-hand Idaho cannot remove itself from immigration and the rest of the world.

Popoola, a first-year international studies major, emigrated to Moscow from Nigeria when she was 12 years old.

She said the transition was far from an easy one.

Ro Afantchao, the associate director of the UI Martin Institute, said the process to immigrate to the U.S. is “long and arduous,” and can take anywhere from one to five years. Afantchao sat on a panel, along with Chikezie Ogbuehi, Jeremy Kestle and Jessica McDermott, Friday evening at the 1912 Center to discuss the humanitarian refugee crisis. The event, billed as an open dialogue, drew many curious attendees.

Ogbuehi, a UI law student, said after the lengthy transition from refugee camps to the U.S., the federal government does its best to offer a support system for refugees, working with faith-based organizations and non-profits to find housing and job training. If refugees have family in the United States, they are connected. If there is already a community from a refugee”s native country, they are put in touch. The system aims to ease the difficult transition into a new life.

Yet most refugees do not want a new life, he said.

Ogbuehi said about 80 percent of refugees ultimately return to their original countries because they miss their home. He said people generally want to wait out the conflict and then return to where they are familiar with the language and the culture.

A new place

At Friday”s forum, Afantchao said the United Nations High Commission for Refugees works in refugee camps around the world. Someone living in one of those camps can apply for resettlement through the UNHCR. The application goes from the UNHCR to the local U.S. embassy, to the Department of Homeland Security, back to the embassy for an interview with the refugee, and then back to the Department of Homeland Security for the final word.

When people do immigrate and stay, it isn”t easy, explained Kestle, a UI student who works with refugee children at the College of Southern Idaho Refugee Center.

“It seems to go one of two ways,” Kestle said. “They are either quiet and reserved, or they act out a lot.”

Knowing they come from difficult backgrounds, Kestle said, workers do their best to make refugees feel welcome.

Popoola said she has found a home in Moscow, and praised the community for being safe and welcoming to her. The most jarring change for her, she said, was the American focus on the individual.

She said unlike in Nigeria, where life is centered around the community, building a community in America is an active process. Popoola said this can make integration difficult.

Afantchao said mental health can be an enormous issue, particularly when refugees have gone through traumatic experiences.

“People who have witnessed rape, who have witnessed unbelievable suffering, they need special counseling,” Afantchao said.

Refugee patients have often gone months with neglected health issues, both physical and mental, and when they do see doctors, they often deal with years of problems, Afantchao said.

Integration across cultures

Following terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernadino, Idaho Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter called on President Obama to halt the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program due to security concerns.

“I am duty-bound to do whatever I can to protect the people of Idaho from harm,” Otter wrote.

Still, refugee resettlement has been far more successful in the United States than in Europe, Afantchao said. He said he has friends who fled from violence in Togo in the 1990s, and are still in refugee camps in places like Luxembourg, Belgium and Germany – they cannot be resettled until a lengthy trial process.

Denmark, a country more than fifty times smaller than the U.S., spends more per individual refugee than any other country in the world. Yet Danish Ambassador Rolf Holmboe, who visited UI earlier this month, said the country has faced challenges integrating people of a different culture into a country that has historically lacked diversity.

He said nativist, nationalist politics have thrived with the surge of foreigners and the tremendous amount of welfare the state gives them. Where young people in the U.S. turn to the left when frustrated with government institutions, the European youth go right. He said some feel Danish culture is under attack.

“We”re mostly blonde and Lutheran,” Holmboe said. “We”re not like the U.S. or Canada, with years of experience with integration.”

In some parts of Europe, immigrant populations have grown separately from the rest of country, often in communities facing higher crime. These numbers were distributed to audience members at Friday”s panel. Lawrence Moran, who attended the forum, said the numbers presented were misleading. He said since crime rates inside refugee camps were excluded, the numbers are actually much higher than the fact sheet claimed.

Ogbuehi said there were not enough people investigating crimes inside refugee camps and building reliable data, but, referencing Holmboe, crime rates in Danish refugee camps are still high.  

Ogbuehi said this is addressed by a security presence in the camps.

“Let”s not walk away with the impression that these refugee camps are lawless,” Ogbuehi said.

Ogbuehi said increased crime rates are a challenge that comes with integrating foreigners into a new culture.

He said, for example, if tragedy struck the Pacific Northwest and thousands of people were streaming into Argentina, the Argentinian natives would not be appreciative of the Washingtonians” fondness for recreational marijuana.

“People will come with their issues,” he said. “We should be prepared for it.”

Yet Moran wasn”t buying it.

Moran, a member of the U.S. Army, said he worked as military police with a number of refugees, and stressed the importance of assimilation. He said much of refugee crime comes from being sequestered in subpar living conditions instead of interacting with the rest of the country.

More to be done

While the United States does a decent job of handling the transition to a new country, Afantchao said more could be done.

Afantchao said when the Danish government asked people to take in refugees, more than 1,500 people stepped forward. From there, everyone was able to fully participate in making the transition more comfortable.

He said there is a similar desire to help in Idaho. One person in the audience asked what could be done to directly assist refugee families, saying the paperwork needed to adopt a family looked impossible, and it was easy to feel distant and helpless.

Kestle said simply being knowledgeable helps. Afantchao mentioned several non-governmental organizations working out of Boise. McDermott suggested a letter-writing campaign run by Moscow, Idaho, Supports Refugees.

Still, Kestle said there are few great options for someone living in Idaho, a state that has taken in less than 8,000 immigrants since 2007.

However, Afantchao said he was optimistic the evening opened up new conversations and humanized a group of people often seen as distant and different.

“Remember,” Afantchao said, “Refugees are people too.”

Danny Bugingo can be reached at  arg-news@uidaho.edu

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