PORTLAND – There have been several items in The Portland Press Herald recently, the latest regarding the tragic death of 24-year-old Eric Benson in Monument Square on May 23, that have drawn reader comments, both in print and especially online.

These comments highlight the grave misunderstandings about refugees in general and Catholic Charities Maine’s Refugee and Immigration Services’ resettlement program in particular.

Sadly, many of these comments seem to be racially motivated and made without any real understanding of what a refugee is or the services offered by RIS.

Many presume incorrectly that RIS seeks out refugees to come to Maine and that the program takes money and social aid out of the hands of Mainers. The other assumption is that refugees are here illegally.

These are complete misconceptions that need to be dispelled.

A refugee is a person unable to return to his or her country of origin because of a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, gender, etc.

Many of the refugees who have been resettled were victims of war or genocide and lived in refugee camps for up to 10 years awaiting resettlement. Many of the refugee children were born in these camps and have never known stability or their native homes.

RIS does not “bring” refugees into the United States or Maine. The U.S. State Department works with the United Nations to provide resettlement opportunities for refugees.

In 2009, the U.S. government agreed to accept a maximum of 80,000 refugees; of this 80,000, RIS was assigned approximately 230 primary refugees to be resettled.

The refugees that arrive in Maine are not illegal aliens, but rather people who have been persecuted in their countries of origin and are brought here by the federal government for their own safety.

The number of refugees that arrive in Maine is determined annually by RIS’ completion of a capacity survey that is approved by the State Department. The survey assesses the refugee populations who are already here, the housing market, the employment market, access to health care, languages spoken and available interpreters, staff to client ratios, etc.

As far as funding is concerned, RIS is financed by a number of grants, almost all of which are federal and are either allocated directly from Washington, D.C., or are funneled through Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services and the Office of Multicultural Affairs.

All of the federal grants that RIS currently receives are specific to meeting the needs of refugees being resettled in the United States and cannot be applied for by U.S. citizens or other immigrant groups. There is only one grant from a local agency, which represents 1 percent of total funding.

When refugees arrive in Maine, RIS case managers find and prepare housing, furnish homes with donated furniture, buy food that is culturally appropriate, assist with access to health care, employment, enrolling their children in schools and referring adults to English language learning programs.

The goal is to help all refugee arrivals to rebuild their lives in Maine after years of trauma and uncertainty, while actively supporting them in achieving their own self-sufficiency.

Although the majority of comments in the media has been centered on RIS, it is just one of the 30 programs run by Catholic Charities Maine that serve over 49,000 Maine people annually. The programs include mental health services, dentistry and visual services, child care, elder care and substance abuse programs, to name a few.


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