By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes

In 2015, Keizerites Anya and Doug Holcomb were part of a relief team with the Christian Missionary Alliance at a refugee camp near the border of Greece and Macedonia. The number of refugees flooding into the camp was overwhelming, but stories connected them to individuals amid the chaos.

Sitting in the dusty camp, Anya spoke with a young man who wept as he talked about having to leave his elderly parents behind. On another day, five children died attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea on a raft and sorrow swept through the camp.

“They were kids that many people in the camp knew,” Anya said.

Anya was struck by the stories of the hardship the refugees had endured, but also by how similar their families were to hers. The families in the camp harbored hopes and dreams for themselves and their children not unlike hers and many, she realized, never wanted to leave their homes.

“It’s so easy to just think of the refugee as an other, but they are just like us,” Anya said.

When they returned to the U.S., the couple expected to land in the Portland area and continue working with refugees stateside, but they soon learned that the organizations working with refugees were looking for an alternative (read: cheaper) to Portland and they found it in Salem-Keizer.

The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates there are currently more than 65 million forcibly displaced people around the globe. About 22.5 million of those are registered refugees who fled their home because of war, persecution, or violence. More than half of those with refugee status are under the age of 18.

Since 2015, Catholic Charities and Lutheran Community Services Northwest, which contract with the federal government, have resettled about 160 refugees in Keizer and Salem. They’ve come from nine different countries – primarily from the Middle East and Africa – and they are known as “free cases,” which means they don’t have any other connections in the United States.

Catholic Charities and Lutheran Community Services are able to assist resettled families and individuals for 90 days, but even that requires boots on the ground to arrange everything from housing, health care, employment, English education, and transportation. That’s where Anya and Doug’s group, Salem for Refugees, steps in.

“We form mentor teams of six to eight people to walk alongside refugees as friends and guides on the resettlement journey. The teams will go up and meet them at the airport and help them get a house set up, teach them how and where to shop, how to manage finances and even invite them for holidays and other outings. The mentors become their main connections and, we hope, open the door to connecting with the greater community,” Anya said.

In addition to the mentor teams that work with individual families, Salem for Refugees has resource teams dedicated to building local housing, employment, healthcare transportation, and education networks for refugees to tap into.

Those teams have made it possible for refugees to get health screening at West Salem Clinic rather than traveling to Portland, and one local business owner is now working to set up a furniture rehabbing business for the primary purpose of hiring resettled refugees.

“The idea is to make it a one-to-two year program and the employees will graduate with certain skills and certifications as well as job prospects,” Anya said. “Overall, what we’ve found is that refugees tend to be incredibly hardworking and grateful for the opportunity. Opportunities like this will let them build skills and work on language acquisition at the same time.”

Salem for Refugees also accepts and donates Restart Kits for arriving families who often arrive with only the clothes on their back and most cherished possessions.

“We had a family of five arrive a few weeks ago with three suitcases between them,” Anya said. One suitcase per person is more typical, but hardly enough to start over in a new country.

Restart Kits can include a huge variety of items centered around particular rooms in a home. A Personal Care Kit can include toothpaste, shampoos, deodorants and toilet paper. A Bedding Kit includes blankets, sheets, mattress pads and pillows. A full list of kits and possible contents can be found at the Salem for Refugees website, salemforrefugees.org.

The biggest hurdle for refugees is often the culture shock of moving to a new country where isolation is becoming more and more common. Refugees often experience three types of trauma on the road to resettlement, Anya said, “The first is being forced to leave their home country, second is the trauma of the refugee camp where they’re in a survival mode, then the trauma of resettlement.”

In a perfect world, it would be a speedy process, but the sheer number of refugees worldwide has lengthened the average stay in a refugee camp to between six and 10 years.

Resettlement also comes with a whole new set of challenges. Anya said one recent arrival earned his driver’s license and Salem for Refugees was able to supply him with a cheap vehicle. When they went to get him insurance, quotes ranged between $150 to $200 a month because the man was a “new driver.”

“It’s things we take for granted that end up being the biggest surprises. Most of us got our driver’s licenses young and were added to our parents insurance where we might pay only a part of the overall cost. By the time we get insurance on our own, we have a driving record and can get more reasonable rates. $150 a month is a challenge for a family trying to restart their lives. It’s going to take three years for him to get a more reasonable rate,” she said.

In addition to helping their partners check boxes for the bureaucracy, Anya said Salem for Refugees is mostly about making space for new, international neighbors in Salem-Keizer.

“They’ve all had hopes and dreams just like us,” Anya said. “They want to live in safety and have places where their children can get an education. Our organization is about finding out how Salem-Keizer can be a home and a place where people can build a new life.”

For more information, or to get involved on a Salem for Refugees mentor or resource team, email info@salemforrefugees.org.