What Kind of Welcome Do Refugees Get in Virginia?

Feb 2, 2016

The world migration crisis has brought more attention to the plight of refugees.  But global terrorism and other concerns have fueled a national debate over whether America’s promise of welcoming those fleeing violence and persecution can be maintained. In the first of a month-long series on refugees, WMRA’s Jessie Knadler looks at who is being resettled in the Shenandoah Valley, who’s helping them, and whether local communities are welcoming them.


It’s an unseasonably warm Tuesday morning in December and a group of seven newly arrived refugees are being taught a class in budgeting and finance at a church in downtown Harrisonburg. A husband and wife from Basra, Iraq, and an Arabic translator, are among the group. The couple has been in the United States with their two children since November.

Part of today’s lesson: Identifying American bills and coins, deciphering a paycheck and comprehending the stark difference between gross pay and the more dismal net pay.

RIYADH:           Mmm

INSTRUCTOR:  That’s what you start with. Now you’re not going to see that but one time because look what happens. Look what happens.

RIHADH:          Yeah, yeah.

INSTRUCTOR:  But it’s everybody. It won’t be just you. It’s everybody.

The lessons are rudimentary, but the skills required are significant. Riyadh – the husband – speaks no English, he has no job and he and his family have spent the last several years running for their lives. Riyadh used to work for a company associated with the American military, which made him a target after the Americans departed. His life was threatened.

The Budget and Finance class is part of a 4-week rotating Life Skills series organized by Church World Service’s Refugee Resettlement Office in Harrisonburg. CWS is one of nine private agencies contracted with the U.S. Government to resettle some 70,000 refugees accepted into the country every year.

Harrisonburg has long been identified as big resettlement community, going back to the immigration of Vietnamese boat people in the 1970s. There are reasons for this: It has strong places of worship. It boasts a high quality of life, high employment in industries in which English is not essential, such as food production, and a relatively low cost of living. But the funny thing is, this is news to a lot of Harrisonburgers.

KAI DEGNER:   I don’t think most people are aware that Harrisonburg is a designated refugee resettlement area.

Kai Degner is a former mayor and current city council member.

DEGNER:         I think Harrisonburg is friendly in the sense that it provides opportunities for people and there are support structures here. In that sense, I think it’s welcoming. Is every single individual a welcoming person? No.

But refugees are meeting some resistance from other officials.  Republican Congressman Bob Goodlatte, who represents the 6th District, including Rockingham, Augusta and Rockbridge Counties, has criticized the Obama Administration’s decision to resettle thousands of Syrian refugees in the United States.

Goodlatte didn’t speak to WMRA on tape, but issued an email statement, which read in part [quote]: “Unfortunately, the United States’ generous immigration and refugee policies are being abused in ways that pose threats to the safety of our citizens.” He goes on to say, “We welcome those refugees who are fully qualified and vetted to enter the United States.”

The Harrisonburg Refugee Office resettles between 175 to 200 refugees every year. Most clients are from Iraq, followed by Eritrea –near the horn of Africa – Colombia, Afghanistan and Cuba.


On another afternoon, CWS organized an event for refugee moms at the children’s museum. It was a chance for ladies who might otherwise be home alone with children to get out and share stories with their peers. Most of the women wore hijabs and didn’t want to talk to a reporter, but at least one looked all American: purple Nikes, a sparkly cap with flowers on it. Her name is Manwar. She’s been in the States with her husband and child for three years. Like most of the women, she doesn’t have her driver’s license but is practicing.

MANWAR:       I like to drive. Go to the school. To the appointment. To shopping.

Upon a refugee’s arrival in Harrisonburg, Church World Service provides each individual with roughly $1,000. CWS sets them up with a furnished apartment stocked with some food, and helps them apply for various services from food stamps to Medicaid.  CWS teaches newcomers how to interview, helps them enroll in English and driving classes, and their children in school.

The program is designed to make refugees feel welcome, and to give them a leg up, but it’s still rooted in the American “sink or swim” model. Once the thousand dollars runs out, it’s gone. Refugees also have to pay back the cost of each family member’s airfare.

JIM HERSHBERGER:    It’s a pretty intense first month or so, it sure is.

Jim Hershberger is the director of the immigration and refugee program for Church World Service in Harrisonburg.

HERSHBERGER:           It takes 3-4 years to get here. In those 3-4 years, most people have had sporadic work—few hours here, few hours there. They’ve not had a steady job for a long time. So the idea of coming here and having steady employment, pay their bills, have some cash, feel comfortable, actually have a safe place to live, with clothes and food is an enormous relief. [12:13]

He said he’s often asked about when Syrian refugees will eventually come through his office. The answer is, it’ll be awhile because the American screening process takes so long. Asylum seekers go through a battery of assessments involving biodata, biometrics and security checks by the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department. Riyadh from Iraq said it took two years for him and his family to pass all the security measures.

Despite reservations, plenty of communities roll out the welcome mat. Lexington’s City Council released a pro-refugee statement in November declaring it [quote] “our patriotic duty as Americans to welcome refugees.”

As for Manwar, she seems grateful for U.S. hospitality.

MANWAR:       I love you.  [LAUGHS]