WASHINGTON — Representatives of Portland’s growing population of political refugees and the organizations that support them will have a chance to share their experiences Friday with a senior U.S. State Department official.
Assistant Secretary of State Anne Richard plans to speak to participants in a job preparation class for refugees at Portland Adult Education and meet with leaders of Catholic Charities Maine, the faith-based nonprofit that is the federal government’s official refugee resettlement partner in Maine.
“We couldn’t do it without these partner agencies,” said Richard, who oversees the State Department’s refugee program as head of the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration.
Richard is also scheduled to meet with Somali and Iraqi natives who settled in Portland after fleeing their countries, and to tour the Barber Foods factory, which frequently hires refugees.
Richard said in an interview Thursday that she had accepted an invitation to speak at Bowdoin College on Thursday, so she decided to extend the visit to meet with refugees and those involved with resettlement in Maine.
Catholic Charities helped resettle 350 people in Maine last year, out of 70,000 refugees who were admitted to the U.S. because they would face persecution if they returned to their native countries.
Applicants for the resettlement program must go through an often years-long review and bureaucratic process. Last year was the first time in several years that the State Department met its resettlement goal of 70,000 people. Richard said the State Department is working to improve that process, internally and in the placement communities.
“Part of that means having conversations with local officials and state officials to make sure these are places where people will get a warm welcome, where perhaps there are jobs going unfilled and opportunities for someone at the bottom rung of the economic ladder to start to climb,” Richard said.
Richard’s speech to students at Bowdoin was on the humanitarian crisis in Syria caused by civil war, and in neighboring nations that are struggling to accommodate the flood of refugees. Richard predicted that Syrians may be among the next wave of refugees seeking resettlement in the U.S.
Tarlan Ahmadov, program manager for refugee and immigration services at Catholic Charities Maine, said Maine has yet to receive any Syrian refugees but he expects them in the future. In 2013, the number of Iraqi refugees who were resettled in Maine outnumbered Somalis for the first time.
Ahmadov said his agency is excited by the opportunity to show Maine’s success in helping refugees settle, learn English and move into the workforce. He said Catholic Charities Maine hopes to hear suggestions from Richard and perhaps gain insight on where the U.S. refugee program is headed.
“We want to share our experiences and our struggles, and we want to show the local businesses run by refugees,” Ahmadov said.
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