Refugee resettlement efforts blossom in Blacksburg

Jennifer Cooper

Contributing writer

Starting with three people at Glade Church who saw a need to help, the Blacksburg Refugee Partnership has grown from word of mouth and social media to about 50 people being involved day-to-day, 300 on the email distribution list and 700 followers on Facebook.

Friends told friends and “one thing led to another,” said Scott Bailey, a spokesman for the Partnership. Currently, 12 faith communities and 10 other organizations are represented.

Originally formed to aid Syrian refugees who are a product of their country’s brutal civil war, the group settled one Syrian family in Blacksburg in October. Bailey said the first family consisted of six children ages infant to 14 and their parents.

They are a “beautiful family,” said Phyllis Geoghagen of Blacksburg United Methodist Church. She and her husband, the retired Rev. Rick Geoghagen, have been involved in the Partnership from the beginning. Mrs. Geoghagen shared that the father works construction and the mother is “always serving her family.”

A second Syrian family was set to arrive in Blacksburg on Feb. 2 but became stuck in Jordan as they were not allowed to enter the United States due to President Donald Trump’s Jan. 27 executive order. This order suspended for 90 days all immigration into the United States by people from one of seven majority Muslim countries – Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Sudan, Yemen, and Somalia.

When the travel ban was struck down by Seattle-based U.S. District Judge James Robart on Feb. 3, a ruling which was upheld on Feb. 9 by a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the Blacksburg group knew it needed to take advantage of the window of opportunity.

Again collaborating with Commonwealth Catholic Charities, one of only 11 organizations that can work with the State Department to bring refugees into the United States, it took on the resettlement of two new families to the Blacksburg area.

The Partnership has expanded its reach, with these families being from Somalia and Afghanistan.

“The need is so great,” Bailey said. “These families have been through a lot.”

Currently, the two families are in Virginia, and while Bailey could not give a firm date for their arrival in Blacksburg, he anticipates them within the next couple of weeks.

Meanwhile, there was nothing legally stopping the second Syrian family from entering the United States except that the family was waiting in line for travel paperwork.

A Feb. 17 post on the Partnership’s Facebook page stated that the family – two parents, four girls, and one boy – arrived safely in Blacksburg and was “warmly welcomed” by the existing Syrian family.

In serving these families, Blacksburg Refugee Partnership receives no government support and is funded solely through donations, except for a $1,000 grant from the Community Foundation.

Volunteers not only donate money but also perform tasks large and small to integrate the families, from helping the adults find jobs to helping the families find places to live to introducing them to American daily life.

The Partnership shows them how to navigate public transportation, settle kids in school, find faith communities and enroll the children in sports. Transportation has been a key need as the refugees cannot drive and are still learning the bus system.

According to Bailey, culture shock has not been a problem.

“Blacksburg is so diverse that they fit right in,” he said.

The language barrier is being overcome slowly, and there are international markets for special cultural foods, and more than one mosque exists in Blacksburg to accommodate their faith.

For the families’ security, the Blacksburg Refugee Partnership keeps them anonymous.

“There are only a small number of people who would act on that information, but the number is not zero,” said Bailey.

Overall, this community is welcoming, related Bailey, calling the response “amazing.”

It has not felt like work for the volunteers to assimilate the first family. Volunteers enjoy the family’s company, with adults and children alike coming together to socialize.

While the organization’s 501(c)(3) designation limits political advocacy, individual members of Blacksburg Refugee Partnership remind their legislators – sometimes in person – that these are humans who deserve to be treated fairly.

What does the future hold for the Blacksburg Refugee Partnership? That will largely depend on the political climate in this country, mused Bailey, as well as on a reevaluation of the Partnership’s resources after settling the current families.

For now, the organization “has its hand full” with the four families it is helping, he said. Blacksburg Refugee Partnership’s goal is to help these families take care of themselves, while still maintaining contact. In fact, said Bailey, he and probably 30-40 other group members would like to be at the high school graduations of the children they have nurtured.

Individuals wanting to help can visit the webpage in order to donate money or send a message to learn what needs exist at a particular time.

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