April 1, 2022
Refugee resettlement in Whatcom works to meet growing needs
Kenneth Duncan

Busy from Day One: The Afghan refugee crisis followed soon after by displacement of Ukrainians greeted the founding of World Relief Western Washington in Whatcom County; from left, local WRWW staff members church and community organizer Zahra Maxwell, resettlement manager Steven Shetterly and resettlement specialist Charity Garza. (Courtesy photo)

April 1, 2022
Refugee resettlement in Whatcom works to meet growing needs
Kenneth Duncan

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The Russian bombardment and invasion of Ukraine has forced millions of people out of their homes and country, making the global refugee crisis worse. More refugees added to a national resettlement effort already helping 76,000 Afghan refugees will challenge local agencies already working hard to keep up with demand. 

Locally, the Whatcom County office of World Relief Western Washington (WRWW) has assisted 30 Afghan refugees in building new lives since beginning operations in October 2021 as this area’s first resettlement agency recognized by the U.S. Department of State. Originally organized as the Whatcom Refugee Project, its staff expect to resettle 75 more refugees by September of this year.

Profound logistical, cultural and emotional challenges face the displaced. WRWW resettlement manager Steven Shetterly described the process of guiding refugees through a complex resettlement process while also providing comfort after life-changing events as “chaotic.” 

Resettlement agencies such as WRWW assist refugees during the first 90 days after their arrival. It’s a crucial period that involves finding housing, enrolling children in school and “everything you can imagine somebody would need if they’re starting off fresh in a new country,” Shetterly said.

Global partners

WRWW is associated with World Relief, a church-centered nonprofit that partners with churches and other community organizations across the globe. The partnership affords WRWW access to federal funds, training, bookkeeping and other support unavailable to most grassroots organizations.

While individual groups have helped refugees resettle in Whatcom, resettlement agencies need the support of a larger agency in order to resettle large amounts of people quickly. 

“It really is our association with World Relief that enables us to receive that flow of people and to be assigned refugee cases,” Shetterly said. “Private groups of citizens can get together, raise funds, go through training and say, ‘we’ll resettle a family if you send us one’ but to do anything at scale, you have to be associated with an agency.”

Shetterly founded the local organization because he saw Whatcom County as an ideal community for refugee resettlement, after observing humanitarian crises across the globe and the changing political environment. 

He said he thought the county would be a community in favor of a resettlement project and would have the necessary resources. The inspiration came to him after the last presidential election, when he realized that federal immigration policies would be changing.

The basics: shelter, clothing, communication

The biggest obstacle for new refugees is finding consistent, long-term housing, something many residents experience as well due to a shortage of affordable rentals.

“The number one challenge anywhere resettlement happens is finding housing that’s affordable and where landlords are going to agree to even look at the application from someone who has no credit history, no rental history, no job,” Shetterly said. Without affordable housing, there can’t be resettlement.

According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, there are only 31 affordable and available rental units per 100 renter households in Washington.

Another challenge is money. Refugees often arrive with very little. Most of their Department of Health and Human Services Refugee Cash Assistance funds pay for housing up to the first eight months in the country.

Donations such as gift cards allow the WRWW to support new arrivals with clothing and other supplies as quickly as possible. 

“When a family needs clothes, we don’t need to stockpile tons of donated clothing, go through that and sort out what’s good,” Shetterly said. “We can take them to a local store and use the gift card and buy stuff that fits. After people get off the plane, we’re able to take them shopping the next day.” 

After finding housing and necessities, refugees need to adapt to a culture and language largely foreign to them. Many arrivals speak little or no English; helping them develop those skills is key to settling down comfortably.

English language courses and cultural orientation classes are opportunities for refugees to develop language skills — and for refugees and locals from their home communities to connect. 

A minimum level of English is necessary to get a job, Shetterly said; for Afghan refugees, “the cultural orientation classes have been great to gather everybody in the same spot, watching them relate to the local Afghan community.”

Afghan crisis

The rush of Afghan refugees required WRWW to begin operations before their planned start date in early 2022. The early launch was described as “insane” by Shetterly. 

“We were planning to open and start resettlement at this time of year and to do it gradually. Instead, it was, ‘here’s a crisis’,” Shetterly said. 

Operation Allies Welcome processed more than 76,000 Afghan nationals in 2021 by qualifying them for humanitarian parole, which allows individuals to enter the country quickly for urgent humanitarian reasons. This is far shorter than the average two-year screening process that refugees generally go through. 

“The State Department reached a point in November of saying, ‘we need to clear all of these people off of these military bases, it’s not viable long-term for them’,” Shetterly said. The message was, “‘Here you go, resettlement agencies; here’s about 75,000 people to resettle in a very short amount of time.’ We said, ‘Hey, we can help play a very small role in this’.”

WRWW initially agreed to resettle 75 refugees in 2022 but accepted 30 more cases. Besides a family of seven who moved to Seattle, all the Afghan arrivals WRWW assisted have settled in Whatcom County. 

And now, Ukraine

One of the largest questions in the resettlement world right now is how the Ukraine refugee crisis will be handled, as Ukrainian refugees begin to settle in the Pacific Northwest. 

“We start working with people when they land in Bellingham … we’re definitely advocating on a national level for processes to get Ukrainians to safety, but we’re not able to evacuate people,” Shetterly said. “It’s something that I think we will see an impact from, but it’s going to be weeks or months before we really start seeing many arrivals.” 

As refugee cases generally take two years to process, Ukrainians hoping to join the 6,200 others in Washington’s already well-established Ukrainian immigrant community will have to wait until their cases are approved or for Congress to grant them humanitarian parole, a process that Shetterly says could take months.

While global refugee populations have increased, national resettlement has decreased. The 11,814 refugees resettled in the U.S throughout fiscal year 2020 was the country’s lowest number since the passage of the Refugee Act in 1980, according to the National Immigration Forum.

Resettlement began shrinking after the Trump administration began to lower the national refugee acceptance ceiling in 2017, which led to a reduction in resources across the resettlement community, including World Relief who were forced to lay off over 140 of their staff in 2017.  

 The Biden administration increased the acceptance ceiling to 62,500 in May last year. Agencies across the country have been rushing to restart after a major period of downtime. For new organizations like the WRWW, jumping into such a new process was complicated. 

Connecting to community

Shetterly said that part of WRWW’s mission is to provide a welcoming community to ensure that refugees can feel not just safe but welcomed by the people around them. 

“That broader sense of successful resettlement of finding people in a place where it’s not just that they can navigate and figure out how to get food, but that they can feel like they’re contributing in, and an appreciated member of, the local community,” Shetterly said. 

WRWW started small, with only Shetterly working as a full-time employee assisted by a team of dedicated volunteers. Since opening October however, the team has expanded to include a resettlement specialist and a church and community organizer. 

Volunteers are still vital to the resettlement process. Whatcom County locals provide transportation, interpretation and donations to help new arrivals adjust.

For cousins Frozan Sadat and Sahar Najibi, whose own family left Afghanistan nearly 20 years ago, helping resettle means creating a network of emotional and cultural support.

Sadat said that helping others make the transition to a new environment and culture allows her to make a meaningful difference for a cause that’s close to her heart. Connecting with the arrivals is one of the ways she feels she tries to make the move less painful. 

“In the beginning it was very more of a professional setting, meeting up at the airport and having their first visit, explaining their circumstances and how it’s going to go on from here,” Sadat said. “But once things got settled and I got to know them on a personal level, it’s just been nice.” 

Najibi assists new arrivals by helping them navigate and access the resources that are available to them, as well as providing cultural guidance — something that she didn’t have when she moved to Whatcom County to be closer to her family. 

“My goal, and why I’m doing this, is to basically be that bridge in between the two cultures,” Najibi said. “I also don’t want them to go through the hassle and the struggles that we went through. Not that they won’t, but probably not as much.” 

— Reported by Kenneth Duncan

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