Refugees in spotlight as result of national changes

Sparrow Furniture in Salem employees refugees as part of larger resettlement efforts in Salem and Keizer.

In the past four years, Salem for Refugees has helped resettle more than 300 individuals and families fleeing war, violence, conflict or persecution. 

However, an executive order issued by President Donald Trump could upend those efforts if Marion County Commissioners do not provide a letter of consent to continue allowing refugees into the area. 

To get ahead of potential backlash, Matthew Westerbeck, refugee services program manager at Catholic Charities of Oregon, and Anya Holcomb, co-founder of Salem for Refugees, spoke to members of the Keizer City Council at its meeting Monday, Dec. 16. 

“There are almost 71 million displaced people throughout the world and roughly 26 million meet the United Nations definition of a refugee,” Westerbeck said. “When refugees arrive in Oregon, we help get them on their feet.”

In September, the Trump administration announced it was placing a new limit on the number of refugees permitted to come to the United States and gave state and local authorities, like the Marion County Board of Commissioners, the option to reject any resettlement of refugees in their jurisdictions. Under the new policy, a governor could consent to allowing refugees in the state and a county commission could prevent them from being resettled locally. 

“Refugee visas are the most difficult visas to obtain,” Westerbeck said. Each person who applies is vetted by a legion of federal agencies ranging from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to the National Counterterrorism Center. 

Once refugees arrive, Westerbeck said they typically become some of the nation’s most productive citizens. 

“The most profound statement of how hard these families work is that within about 20 years, they have an average income $14,000 more than the national average. The rate of entrepreneurship is 1.5 times the general rate of entrepreneurship, they have higher workforce participation than the national average and they pay more in taxes than they receive in benefits,” Westerbeck said. 

The rising cost of housing Portland was one of the major factors in expanding resettlement efforts to Salem-Keizer in 2015, said Holcomb, a resident of Keizer.  

“At the time, there were many who wanted to get involved, but we didn’t have a coordinated infrastructure,” she said. Salem for Refugees was established to create a network of support services that includes housing, employment, education, health care and transportation.

Until recent action by the Oregon Legislature requiring the Oregon Department of Human Services to award grants to resettlement agencies, most efforts to help refugees resettle in Oregon were provided through private donations. 

Support offered through Salem for Refugees goes beyond providing material objects as well. 

“We have mentor teams who walk alongside them as friends and guides,” Holcomb said. 

Holcomb finished by sharing the tale of one family, a father and four daughters, who are already well on their way to establishing roots in the area. 

Abbas, not the man’s real name, fled to Thailand from Pakistan after his family was attacked for being religious minorities. Abbas was injured and his pregnant wife was sent into early labor. She died in childbirth but the baby girl survived. 

Abbas arrived in Salem-Keizer about two years ago and began working at Sparrow Furniture in Salem. He’s now working for Goodwill and his daughters are either enrolled in school or preparing for it.

“It was a dream of his wife that his daughters would get an education. He tells us he’s fulfilling that dream for her now,” Holcomb said. 

For more information about Refugees for Salem, visit