The number of people seeking sanctuary in the Chicago area is growing significantly, according to a local agency that helps refugees resettle in the city.
“Right now, we are experiencing a really crazy surge in arrivals,” Lea Tienou told an audience of college students as well as immigrant and refugee service providers and advocates.
Tienou is associate director of refugee family adjustment and employment services at the Heartland Alliance. She spoke Monday afternoon at DePaul University’s Loop campus as part of a panel discussion about the global refugee crisis.
The Heartland Alliance typically sees about 20 refugees per month, Tienou explained. Just in the last month, however, 100 refugees came to the agency, and 90 more are expected to seek assistance from the Heartland Alliance in September.
“It’s been a really busy time, and this is throughout the country that we’re seeing a really large influx of arrivals,” she said.
An “unprecedented” 65.3 million people were displaced from their homes by conflict or persecution at the end of 2015, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). That’s up from 59.5 million displaced people in the previous year.
At the end of 2015, there were 21.3 million refugees, 3.2 million asylum seekers, and 40.8 million migrants worldwide.
“Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia produce half the world’s refugees, at 4.9 million, 2.7 million and 1.1 million, respectively,” according to UNHCR.
Tienou said her agency has assisted many people from places such as Syria, Iraq, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Central African Republic.
She stressed that refugees undergo a number of thorough security checks, interviews and medical screenings before being resettled in the United States.
“I’m sure everybody has heard about, sort of, the concerns about resettling Syrian refugees in the United States and some of the pushback about that, because refugees go through a series of security checks — many, many security checks,” Tienou said.
Once a person been deemed eligible for refugee status, the refugee usually has to wait at least two additional years before they can resettle in the United States, Tienou explained.
“The refugee resettlement process takes a really long time,” she noted. “While they’re waiting, there may be more security checks” and health screenings.
Representatives from DePaul University’s Asylum and Immigration Law Clinic, the National Immigrant Justice Center and Alianza Americas, a “network of Latin American and Caribbean immigrant organizations in the United States,” also spoke on Monday’s panel.
Yeny, a woman directly impacted by the refugee crisis and a client of the National Immigrant Justice Center, shared her story as well.
The woman, who declined to provide her last name, fled to the United States with her family in 2007 to escape violence in her home country of Guatemala. Yeny, her husband and their three children were granted asylum in 2009 and became U.S. citizens in March. They live in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood.
“Now my children and I feel safe and free for the first time in our lives,” she said. “While my family and I found help and support, not everyone is as lucky as we are. Every hour and a half, someone is murdered in my home country. For the families able to escape and the children, they need protection and support, not to be locked up and punished.”
At Monday’s panel discussion, the director of Chicago’s Office of New Americans read a declaration from Mayor Rahm Emanuel, proclaiming September 19 as Refugee Protection Day in the city.
The proclamation urged “Chicagoans to continue welcoming refugees” and called on “city departments, local businesses, charitable organizations and legal and social services to provide shelter, sustenance and services for refugee families relocating to Chicago and integrating into our communities.”
Monday’s discussion in Chicago occurred the same day as the first-ever United Nations General Assembly summit on Addressing Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants, being held Monday in New York.
At the summit, the governments of 193 countries approved a plan, known as the New York Declaration, to “enhance protection” for displaced people worldwide.
Among other commitments, the declaration calls on “countries which can resettle or reunite many more refugees to do so,” asks host countries to “increase opportunities for refugee adults to work and for children to go to school,” and “commits governments to better address the drivers and triggers causing the record numbers of forcibly displaced in today’s world,” according to UNHCR.
Participants in the Leaders Summit on Refugees “are expected to make concrete pledges in the form of additional funding, new resettlement places or more opportunities for refugees in host communities,” UNHCR officials said.
Panelists in Chicago highlighted the need for additional resources to address the refugee crisis.
Tienou noted that refugees who arrive through the U.S. resettlement program receive $925 over a three-month period for food, housing, transportation and other necessities.
“That’s insufficient,” she said of the $925 in assistance. “If you live in Chicago, you probably know that, right? If we have a single case coming, we have $925. We’re gonna find a studio apartment for three months and pay for their CTA passes and clothes and food and furnishings. The $925 is largely spent before they have ever set foot in Chicago. And we as an agency will find other supplemental funds to help them make it through those 90 days.”
Craig Mousin, DePaul University’s ombudsperson and co-founder of the school’s Asylum and Immigration Law Clinic, also commented on the topic of resources.
He said the U.S. government provided $69 million in funding during the third quarter of 2015 to the Stewart Detention Center, a privately-run immigration detention center in Georgia.
“That’s just one quarter — $69 million to detain immigrants,” he said. “If we give that money to Heartland and RefugeeOne and Catholic Charities, we can take all the refugees in Greece right now and resettle them. So part of it is a priority of where you put your resources.”