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Refugees Find New Life in D.C., Thanks to IRC's Efforts
Diplomatic Pouch / December 20, 2013

By Larry Luxner

Augustin Ntabaganyimana fled his native Rwanda in 1994, after fighting between ethnic Hutus and Tutsis killed between 500,000 and a million people — as much as one-fifth of his country’s population. He spent the next two years in neighboring Congo.

“We were on the run in the forest,” said Ntabaganyimana, 33, whose four brothers and sisters disappeared in various Congolese refugee camps. “I can’t tell you whether they’re dead or alive.”

Today, Ntabaganyimana is resettlement director at the nonprofit International Rescue Committee (IRC), whose local chapter is housed at the Suburban Washington Resettlement Center in downtown Silver Spring.

Annually, New York-based IRC assists about 9,500 refugees, and in fiscal 2013, the Silver Spring office alone served 648 applicants for political asylum and 314 refugees. They came from 14 nations led by Iraq, Ethiopia and Eritrea; other leading recipients of IRC aid locally were Burundi, Iran, Rwanda, Congo, Cuba and Colombia.

“Most of these refugees come from camps where they have been for many years,” said Ntabaganyimana, who helped refugees in Concord, N.H., for nearly a decade before relocating to the Washington area. “From 2005 to 2007, I worked with people from Burundi who had been in refugee camps since 1972. As hard as it sounds to believe, that situation is not so unique.”

On Nov. 14, the IRC, in unison with its partners at the Suburban Washington Resettlement Center, organized a Thanksgiving feast and holiday coat drive attended by hundreds of people — many of whom were experiencing this uniquely American holiday for the first time ever. Participants gobbled up traditional turkey and all the trimmings, along with noodles, humus and homemade desserts prepared by volunteers from across the globe. Every attendee received a coat, scarf, hat, gloves and clothing to help them make it through their first winter in suburban Washington.

Organizations that partnered with IRC to make the event a success included St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, Woodlin Elementary School, The Refugee Assistance Program, The New Abika Women’s Group and Planet Aid.

“A good part of this event is volunteer-driven. All the clothing has been donated to us, so we don’t have to go out and buy it. The same is true for food, and many interns from universities across the country helped out with this to make sure this event was successful,” said Ntabaganyimana. “What’s amazing is how welcoming the local communities are. If we can pull off something as big as this at a cost of less than $500, that speaks volumes to the added value volunteers bring to the work we do.”

Emily Sernaker, volunteer and external relations coordinator at the IRC, says that of the world’s estimated 14 million refugees, several thousand will apply to be resettled in the United States — but that only 1 percent of all applicants will be admitted.

“A few hundred of these will end up in my office,” she said. “I open the door for them: for an 84-year-old Bhutanese woman who spent decades in a refugee camp; for a Sudanese family who had never seen a refrigerator or toilet before entering the U.S., and for an Iraqi family rushed to the hospital from the airport to have their children treated for shrapnel wounds.”

But the case which touched Sernaker the most, she says, was a Congolese family that arrived in Washington with critical health issues; the oldest daughter was a rape victim, and her siblings were traumatized, malnourished and dehydrated. Nick, an IRC caseworker, met the family at Reagan National Airport.

Working with a Congolese interpreter, Nick explained the resettlement process and showed the family how to find public transportation and shop for groceries. The parents eventually enrolled in English classes. Soon after, the father landed a job at a waste management plant and his wife began work in a local food service company.

“We’ll see more than 1,000 individuals in a given year, but of those, roughly 800 will be employable. Based on their language ability, computer skills and other assessments, we assign the case to an employment specialist,” said Matthew Fortier, employment manager at IRC.

“We target businesses that offer higher wages, health benefits and steady hours,” Fornier said. “There’s a great variety in abilities — at one end, the farmer or housewife who never worked before, people even illiterate in their own languages, and at the other extreme, former business owners with bachelor’s degrees and English language abilities.”

Refugees take classes at either Baltimore City College or Montgomery College, said Fortier, whose agency finds them steady work at East Coast Fresh, a fruit and vegetable processor in Jessup, Md. Other job partners include Lancaster Foods, Taylor Farms, Hyatt Hotels and the Gaithersburg and the Buca de Pepa restaurant chain.

Sian Pau came alone from Burma in 2007 as a refugee through IRC; his wife soon followed. He’s now a staffer at IRC, assisting other refugees.

“I’m glad to be working for this amazing organization, because I know how it is to be a refugee,” said Pau, 31. “Before we came here, we were living illegally in Malaysia, and I was so scared every time I saw police or immigration officers. I was always thinking they’d catch me because I didn’t have any documents. I’d work with this organization even if they send me to Africa.”

It’s absolutely crucial that refugees get the help they need once in the United States, particularly when it comes to filling out forms they often cannot understand, said Shristi Humagai, an IRC staffer from Nepal.

“Asylees who come here are often able to get public benefits, but most asylees who don’t have the right documents can’t get those benefits,” she said.

Ntabaganyimana said it’s also important for refugees to have a network of friends and contacts in place.

“Our philosophy is that if you already have a network, your integration is likely to be faster than someone who doesn’t have anyone,” he said. “If I happen to have a larger network than you, I’m more likely to adjust faster because that network will teach me about the community in which I live. They will guide me during my first days, weeks and months to help me understand how things work. We know from experience that someone who is well-networked is more successful.”

But when it comes to the continuing refugee crisis in sub-Saharan Africa, Ntabaganyimana wishes he could have a more positive outlook

“Unfortunately, I don’t,” he said. “We’re still getting asylees from Rwanda. The genocide happened almost 20 years ago, yet the people are still fleeing Rwanda today. The same is true of the DRC [Democratic Republic of Congo]. The U.S. government announced it intends to resettle 40,000 to 50,000 refugees from the DRC over the next four to five years. That supports my view that in the short term, I don’t see any changes in the political environment.”

Even so, Sernaker said that before working at IRC, the word “refugee” evoked in her mind images of sad, starving people in a squalid camp. Now when she hears the word, she thinks of success stories like the Togolese brothers who worked their way up the job chain to become restaurant managers — or an Ethiopian mother who overcame huge obstacles to be reunited with her family in the United States.

“It’s not that refugees aren’t haunted by the horrors they experienced in the past, or aren’t aware of the challenges they face as they build new lives,” she said. “They have plenty of reasons to be jaded or upset, but most days they choose to be hopeful. They know they’re fortunate to be together, to be safe — to be part of the 1 percent who have gained an opportunity to begin again in a better place.”

For more information on donating to IRC, please visit

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