Friday, February 1, 2008

Georgia Refugee Public Policy Forum 2008

On January 30, 2008, Refugee Women's Network was one of many sponsors of the forum titled

It was held at the Maloof Auditorium in Decatur, Georgia in DeKalb County. As you can see from this graph below, DeKalb is the county where most refugees are resettled. DeKalb County is one of the 5 counties containing or adjacent to the City of Atlanta.

About 45,000 refugees have started new lives in the Atlanta metropolitan area in the past 25 years.

Today, metro Atlanta resettles the 4th largest refugee population of all metropolitan areas in the US.

For more information, see From 'There' to 'Here': Refugee Resettlement in Metropolitan America a report by Audrey Singer at the Brookings Institution. In brief, it finds that refugees are resettling increasingly in non-traditional gateway cities like Seattle, Detroit, and Atlanta as well as the traditional gateway cities of New York, Chicago, and Miami.

The purpose of the forum was to discuss policy issues that impact refugee and immigrant integration, defined as
Issues include availability of English language classes, driver's license tests in languages other than English, education for children, physical and mental health, and economic self-sufficiency.

I'd like to emphasize the phrase "two-way process" in that definition of integration. Refugees and immigrants want to become integrated and want to learn English. It's also a process that takes time. It certainly is achieved by the second generation.

One of the main speakers was Lisa Thakkar of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. The State of Illinois has been quite proactive in developing a state-wide public-private partnership to address immigrant (and refugee) integration. Ms. Thakkar's presentation was quite informative and gave us in Georgia a model to aspire to.

She also mentioned that Santa Clara County in California created a county-wide plan. That may be a more reasonable place for us to start.

While the focus of the day-long forum was policy issues, we were also reminded of the impact on the lives of real people. The speakers included a young woman who talked about the difficulties she faced as a child refugee from Bosnia.

Another woman spoke about the importance of being able to take the driver's test in her own language, even though she did have conversational English. But for something as important as an official test, her English ability was not quite sufficient. And without a driver's license, she would not be able to get to her job. Georgia has precious little public transportation and without the driver's license and the ability to get to her job, she and her family would then be on welfare.

This opinion piece speaks to that issue and was published in today's Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

This policy forum is the first of what we hope will be the beginning of a coordinated effort by refugee serving agencies and the refugee community to increase integration and self-sufficiency.

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