In the 1960s, they were Cubans fleeing Castro's Communist regime. In the 1970s, Vietnamese. In the 1990s, refugees who ended up here included some of those fleeing the ethnic wars in Bosnia. During the past two decades, it was Burmese, who came here by the thousands to escape military repression in Myanmar, as well as Syrians, Lebanese, Turks and Congolese.
Wherever they hail from, refugees would have preferred not to be uprooted by natural or human-driven disaster. But in Fort Wayne, they have found at least some of what they lost – security, freedom and an opportunity to rebuild their lives.
Most refugees are resettled through Catholic Charities of the Fort Wayne-South Bend Diocese. A network of community groups has grown up to help them, and our schools, churches, health services and police have taken steps to accommodate the language and cultural differences of our new residents.
“The very first individuals that were coming (to America) in the 1600s were seeking protection and religious liberty,” said Laura Pontius, a Fort Wayne attorney who works with asylum-seekers, refugees and immigrants through the Neighborhood Christian Legal Clinic. “I think that, by and large, people across the political spectrum really do want to uphold the American values of being a place for people seeking safety.”
Helping has become part of our DNA as a community. Now some appear bent on making it harder for those who need refuge to obtain it, and harder for open-hearted places such as Fort Wayne to provide it. Last month, the White House slashed the number of refugees who can be admitted during the coming year to 18,000 – the lowest cap since the federal admissions program began almost four decades ago. It's the third straight year the cap has been dramatically lowered, and some of President Donald Trump's advisers had urged him to set it even lower – to zero.
As The Journal Gazette's Brian Francisco reported, local and state officials at a quarterly meeting last week said they aren't sure what effect the latest reductions will have on refugee referrals to Fort Wayne.
But Irene Paxia, executive director of Amani Family Services, said Wednesday the effects of the national reductions are likely to be significant.
“Behind these numbers there are actual people who have been waiting for years to reunite with family members,” she said. Often, she added, family members left behind are “in limbo” in refugee camps, sometimes for years.
The practical effects of immigration generally far outweigh potential problems. Fort Wayne and the Midwest, for instance, depend on immigrants for growth. The case for refugees is even stronger. Employers seek them out, Pontius said. “They tend to be wonderful workers who are loyal and often stay with the company for a very long time.”
Since the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program began in 1980, Pontius noted, “there has not been one lethal terrorist attack committed by a refugee who was resettled here.” Those seeking asylum undergo health exams, security checks and interviews over a two-year period. “Refugees are the most thoroughly vetted group that comes to the country,” said Melissa Rinehart, lead organizer of Welcoming Fort Wayne.
“Everyone I've represented has faced incredible trauma, has overcome very serious persecution ... and they really are looking for a fresh start,” Pontius said.
There are almost 26 million refugees worldwide, and as long as there are wars, repression, famine and natural disasters, there will be more.
The United States could never be the whole solution, but it has always stood ready to help – and Fort Wayne has been part of that. “People still seek refuge here,” said Rinehart, “and I think that they always will.”