Assisting refugees in acclimating to Austin

Zoya Waliany

On Saturday, hundreds of Austinites participated in the Ride for Refuge, a biking event held across America that raises funds for nonprofits that benefit refugees. This ride helped raise $18,357 for organizations including Refugee Services of Texas-Austin. Nationwide, the Ride for Refuge has earned about $1.3 million to date. Not only did this exciting event bring together students and families across Austin and raise thousands of dollars for a good cause, it shed light on a significant demographic in Austin ­— its refugees.

According to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, a refugee is a person who, “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or … unwilling to … return there because there is a fear of persecution.” America shelters an enormous number of refugees, with one resettled refugee for every 5,100 members of the total population.

Austin itself has a growing refugee population, and numerous law firms and nonprofits have been formed to assist with resettlement and rights acquisition. Between 50 and 100 legally sponsored refugees enter Austin monthly , and Refugee Services of Texas (RST) records that one or two families come from Iraq every week.

The process of seeking refuge in America is already challenging and requires the assistance of lawyers. Upon entering Austin, refugees must also undergo an intensive resettlement process that requires them to learn an entirely new culture and way of life. Organizations such as RST assist refugees during their first 90 days in Austin by finding them housing, furniture, clothing, food, counseling and orientation to the American way of life. Other programs include employment search assistance, a matching grant program to support refugees in attaining self-sufficiency quickly and legal guidance.

Simultaneously undergoing the stresses of leaving one’s country, settling into a new place — particularly one with a culture as distinct as Austin ­— and searching for a new job can be both extremely challenging and mentally damaging. To help refugees feel more comfortable upon arrival, RST places similar communities in the same apartment complex, and volunteers teach newcomers how to use the bus system and efficiently tackle shopping at H-E-B.

The Austin community is commendably friendly to refugees, with countless other organizations and services designed to assist refugees. One organization, the Austin Refugee Roundtable, brings together panels to discuss the issues surrounding refugees’ tribulations in America regarding work or obtaining citizenship. An Austin retail clothing store called Open Arms employs refugee women with a mission to empower and provide these women reasonable wages in an attempt to break the cycle of poverty . Furthermore, the UT community attempts to partner with refugees as well. UT student organizations such as Liberty in North Korea and the White Rose Society raise funds for refugees affected by conflicts in places such as North Korea and Sudan. There is even a soon-to-be student chapter of RST.

Austin should continue to make refugee settlement a priority. Many of these refugees are escaping unjust persecutions based on race, religion or any other whim of their oppressive governments. With the collaboration of numerous devoted citizens, Austin can offer a community of togetherness, solidarity and a little weirdness to provide refugees an excellent environment to begin their new lives.

Waliany is a Plan II and government senior.