Meet The City’s One-Stop Shop For Refugee Resettlement

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Waiting in a refugee camp is a painful exercise in monotony. Each day is the same: Wake up, wait in line for food, retreat back to your space, and repeat. When Tresor Kalala arrived at a South African refugee camp in 2010, he had not seen his wife, or his two children, or his mother, or his three younger siblings in six years. They were waiting in Burundi after fleeing their native Democratic Republic of Congo, hoping that Kalala could find a safe place for them to live. Now in the camp, all he could do was wait. “It’s very hard to leave your entire family, your wife, your kids,” Kalala says. “It’s very, very hard. God gave me that patience to wait.”

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Illustration By Phil Hackett

In March 2012, his wait was over. He received word through his United Nations camp that he would be resettled in Cincinnati. Roughly 8,000 miles away, the refugee resettlement team at Catholic Charities Southwestern Ohio (CCSWO) sprung into action. Case workers and managers called landlords to secure safe, affordable housing on a bus line. Volunteers gathered donated furniture to furnish the space. A French speaker accompanied the team to the airport. Eager volunteers prepared a warm meal to be shared upon his arrival.

This same process is duplicated for every refugee who arrives in Cincinnati. Since 2009, CCSWO has resettled 1,195 people from countries all over the world, including Bhutan (which has sent the most people), Cuba, Rwanda, Iraq, and yes, Syria. Each time a new family arrives in the city, CCSWO’s staff is there to greet them. An organization known for food banks and marriage counseling is also Hamilton County’s lone resource for refugee resettlement.

On the surface, it may seem strange that the federal government’s point of contact on refugee relocation is a religious organization. (You know, separation of church and state and all that.) In fact, they are an integral part of finding homes for displaced persons. There are nine agencies that the Department of Health and Human Services works with to resettle refugees, and five of them have religious affiliations, including the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). USCCB is by far the largest group, responsible for finding homes for more than a quarter of the refugees entering the country. The 10-member refugee resettlement team within CCSWO operates under the USCCB umbrella.

“Resettling refugees is not easy,” says Ted Bergh, chief executive officer at CCSWO. “You need to really be dedicated, have dedicated people, and be willing to put up your own resources to do this.” That’s because the process of resettlement is a long, complicated ordeal.

During those first days and weeks, director of refugee resettlement Megan Zarnitz and her team follow a rigorous schedule focused on acclimating people as quickly and efficiently as possible. “It’s a lot of juggling,” says Zarnitz, who resettled 65 immigrants during her first month on the job. Within 24 hours, there is a home visit and a complete psycho-social assessment to learn more about each person. After a week, new arrivals enroll in Medicaid, receive food stamps, and apply for Social Security. Ten days in adults are enrolled in English and employment classes at the CCSWO offices in Roselawn. By day 30, families undergo health screenings, children go to school, and young men register for the Selective Service. Squeezed in between all of that are a slew of cultural orientation classes teaching everything from understanding how to use indoor plumbing to when to call 911 and how to use the Metro website.

Upon arriving in the United States, each refugee receives at least $1,100 in federal assistance and a loan for their plane ticket. It’s up to Zarnitz and Co. to teach financial literacy. “The idea is that we have to help clients be really good stewards of that money,” says Zarnitz. And if all goes to plan, which of course isn’t always the case, refugees become self-sufficient within 90 days. But even after that, Zarnitz says there is funding to help clients during their first five years in the country.

The arrival of immigrants is often viewed in economic terms, like how they affect the country’s job market. At CCSWO, they recognize the numerous benefits of immigrant workers, but their motivation is tied to their Catholic roots. “We do it not because it’s in style,” says Bergh, noting that the resettlement program has been operating since World War I. “We do it because our faith calls us to welcome the stranger.”

It was Tresor Kalala’s faith that helped him stay positive during his first two years in Cincinnati. He got a job working maintenance for the Sisters of Mercy while he waited, once again, for his family to join him. Then, just before Christmas in 2014, after 10 years apart, Kalala’s wife and children arrived in Cincinnati. “We just talk all the night, just look each other in the eyes,” says Kalala. But his work is still not complete. Kalala hopes that, with the help of the CCSWO legal team, his mother will make it to Cincinnati. When that time comes, Zarnitz and her team will be ready for action.

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