With fewer refugees to resettle, World Relief aims to broaden its role

In World Relief’s new Carol Stream offices are dry-erase boards tracking refugee arrivals to the suburbs.

In most years, World Relief DuPage/Aurora would cover the so-called “arrival boards” with lists of families the nonprofit was expecting to resettle over two or three months.

But the three panels have become a stark visual: Blank, expect for the name of an Afghan refugee who arrived a few weeks ago.

“It is heartbreaking because we know the stories of people who are waiting,” Executive Director Susan Sperry said. “The majority of people we resettle have family or friends in this region — 80 percent to 90 percent have family or friends here. So when we see an empty board, that means there are so many people who are not being able to reunite with families and friends.”

World Relief’s so-called “arrival boards” track the refugee families welcomed by the resettlement organization, but only one arrival is listed for the month of July.
– Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

World Relief is one of nine organizations contracted by the U.S. State Department to resettle refugees. But the Trump administration has capped refugee admissions to 45,000 for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30 — the lowest figure since the Refugee Act of 1980. Advocates expect the actual number to reach roughly half that based on State Department statistics.

World Relief’s suburban offices have resettled a combined 133 refugees through June. By contrast, those offices welcomed 652 refugees in fiscal 2016.

More than 40 percent of this year’s refugees are from Myanmar; others are from Bhutan and Ukraine.

But as the arrivals shrink, World Relief finds itself able to extend its social services and expertise to a broader group of immigrant families.

“That’s one silver lining if you could say of what is otherwise an incredibly difficult, difficult time for the refugee community with so many policy changes,” Sperry said. “But our ability to move toward offering some services to other vulnerable immigrants serves our broader community.”

Office move

More than 200 suburban churches partner or connect with World Relief to support its services. Volunteers also helped the group move to its new offices on Gary Avenue in Carol Stream.

World Relief had to leave its longtime space in a Wheaton College-owned building after the school decided to close it to tenants. The building remains a general warehouse for the campus, its primary use over the past 20 years.

Mohammad Behrokh, senior transportation specialist, runs a driver’s permit preparation class for clients of World Relief.
– Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

An open house Thursday introduced families to the new offices that feature portraits of refugees who have become entrepreneurs and a patchwork quilt by refugees who fled the former Yugoslavia that represents unity.

“Most of us who work here would say that our lives have been completely transformed through this work and through getting to know people who are different from ourselves, but (also) seeing the core of what unites us, and that is the inherent dignity in each person,” Sperry said.

The offices weren’t immune to a restructuring World Relief announced in February 2017. The agency said it was laying off more than 140 employees and closing five offices in response to the reduced number of refugees being resettled in the U.S.

Eight positions were eliminated from the suburban offices, Sperry said, and about 90 employees now work in Carol Stream and Aurora.

“At that time, it was a very sudden shift, a very sudden downshift, that resulted midyear in much less government funding than we had been anticipating and budgeting for early in the year,” she said. “This year, we’ve been able to plan a little bit more future-forward, knowing what we may face, but it still continues to be a challenge.”

A new direction

A map shows the many countries where refugees now living in DuPage County once resided.
– Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

World Relief serves immigrants, including refugees who have been admitted after a screening process that can take on average two years. The immigration legal services department alone reaches nearly 4,000 people each year between the two locations, providing low-cost assistance around immigration law.

Many of the social services — case management, employment and mental health counseling and youth programs — are focused on refugees and offered to a limited number of other immigrant groups.

But that’s starting to change.

The suburban offices are beginning to offer those services to other immigrant groups. Sperry said World Relief is “taking some small steps” and could expand the effort in the fall.

“As we think about our future direction, we have so much expertise in serving refugees, in serving people who have fled horrible atrocities and are rebuilding their lives and trying to build a good life,” Sperry said. “We want that expertise increasingly in our social service programs to be able to reach immigrants who are also very vulnerable and are for many of the same reasons struggling to rebuild their lives.”

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