Unlike many people, the highlight of Matthew Westerbeck’s week is going to the airport. As program manager for Catholic Charities’ Refugee Services, his enthusiasm makes sense: the first thing new refugees experience when walking into Portland International Airport is a volunteer welcoming committee, cheering and handing out small gifts and flowers.
According to the UN Refugee Agency, there are more than 22.5 million refugees across the globe, many of whom have spent years in refugee camps, enduring hunger and disease and other privation. Of the fraction of those who are resettled, many arrive in their new homelands feeling traumatized and fearful.
“To have volunteers join us in welcoming our city’s newest citizens really makes a tremendous difference,” says Westerbeck. “It helps counter their fears that they won’t be welcome in the United States, after being in a refugee camp for 25 years.”
Since the 1940s, Catholic Charities has provided refugee resettlement services to people of all faiths and backgrounds, serving individuals and families who have been forced to flee their homes due to persecution because of race, religion, nationality, orientation, culture or politics.
The US government provides each arriving refugee with $1,100 to pay for six months of rent, food, and set-up costs. Refugees are then expected to be wholly independent, even after arriving often with nothing but a bag of clothes and a few English words in their vocabulary. Refugee Services helps ease this transition, working to ensure refugees’ initial needs for shelter, furnishings and food are met, in addition to providing case managers and counsellors, referrals to other service providers, and a network of volunteers to help with everything from rides to the doctor, to grocery shopping and English tutoring.
A key part of Refugee Services’ assistance comes in the form of a five-week orientation program, which includes translation and childcare, and helps guide families during the transition. New arrivals are taught how to navigate public transit and healthcare, find a job, register kids for school, turn on a tap, establish credit, use a washing machine, and, like any good Portlander, wage war against mold and mildew.
“Providing such broad-ranging services to such a diverse community can be taxing, especially when refugee arrivals have been so erratic over the last year,” says Westerbeck. “My motivation is when we’re able to reunite children with their parents, brothers and sisters. There are so many different stories about their different experiences—their lives before they fled, their lives in the refugee camps. They break your heart, but they also make us feel great that we can provide as much help and support as possible.”
The Portland Clinic Foundation grant awarded $3,000 in 2017 to Refugee Services, which used the funds to purchase beds for new refugees and support a portion of the orientation program’s costs.
“Having a bed is one of the most significant resources, providing rest and a sense of hope and dignity to refugees, many of whom have spent many months – sometimes years—without their own in which to sleep,“ says James Howell, Development Director, Catholic Charities. “With the support of the Portland Clinic Foundation, we were able to supply ten new beds!”
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