Welcoming The Stranger – Refugees and Immigration
Refugees are Essential Workers
By Noel Plaugher
In the darkness of the early evening, three women arrive at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport having completed their long journey from a refugee camp in Thailand. Ni Ni Win (name has been changed), her teenage daughter and her elderly mother. They move through the jet way; each clutching one bag, wearing a big smile, and hoping that America will be the beginning of a better life.
The family traveled from Myanmar to Thailand before their journey to the U.S. On average, families may be in refugee camps for 7-10 years before being resettled. Upon their arrival to Atlanta, Ni Ni and her family enter the care of the Refugee Resettlement Program through Catholic Charities. The program is committed to helping hundreds of refugees from all over the world who come to America for safety and opportunity; fleeing ethnic, religious, and political persecution.
The three women are met by a representative who greets them with a warm welcome and takes them to their new home about an hour’s car ride away. Though it is the end of their journey; it is only the beginning of a long and often difficult process towards independence in a country where the language and way of life is unfamiliar. The process was taxing before, and then the Coronavirus arrived.
Though the United States and the rest of the world are reeling from a global pandemic, the wheels of progress do not stop for the hardworking staff and clients of the Refugee Resettlement program. COVID-19 has hit some industries harder than others. Some businesses that previously employed refugees have shut down, either temporarily or indefinitely—forcing workers to find alternatives. With one of the goals of the program being self-sufficiency in 180 days; as Bahadur Subba, Resettlement Manager of Catholic Charities Atlanta, put succinctly, “There isn’t much time.” With little aide from the government, it is an amazing testament to the staff that the program currently has a staggering success rate of 85%.
Ni Ni Win, and her family arrived in the fall of 2019 before the pandemic. They were quickly enrolled in ESL classes and oriented to life in the greater Atlanta area. Despite the culture shock of coming from a United Nations refugee camp only weeks before, within 60 days, Ni Ni was already preparing for a job interview at a poultry processing plant. She, like 75%of the participants in the program, are doing what has been dubbed “essential work” during the pandemic by filling the need for workers in the food production chain.
Refugees, like everyone else, have not been spared from dealing with the new normal of social distancing and limited contact. In the community, friends and family often share tips on avoiding the Coronavirus and help each other obtain the necessary PPE to keep each other working and on track towards the goal of self-sufficiency.
At 4:00 am, Ni Ni Win looks out her window into the dark and watches for the lights of the van, her ride to work. She leaves her sleeping daughter, which brings up anxieties about the upcoming school year. She checks her mother’s medications and makes a mental note to find out when more will be coming. With her lunch clutched tightly, she climbs into the van and greets her fellow commuters with a smile and nod as she settles in for the 90 minute journey to the processing plant. Sometimes she dozes off, and when she opens her eyes—usually about halfway through the trip—she sees the sun rise behind the green hills and the opportunity of a new day.