Thousands of refugees each year face hurdles in rebuilding lives away from homes where they were persecuted, and on Monday evening in the Global Neighborhood, Elon University students learned more about issues confronting new arrivals to the United States.
By Kaitlin Dunn ‘16
Tens of thousands of people flee to the United States in any given year for a variety of reasons, and hundreds of those refugees and new immigrants have made their home in Greensboro, N.C., just a short drive from Elon University.
That concentration of new arrivals has created a need for local services to help immigrants acclimate to their adopted country, several experts said this week in a panel discussion inside the Global Commons building of the university’s Global Neighborhood.
Sponsored by the university’s International Living Learning Community, the Oct. 20 panel conversation consisted of two Elon University faculty members and two representatives of nonprofit agencies dedicated to helping immigrants in North Carolina.
Assistant Professor Heather Scavone serves as director of the Elon University School of Law’s Humanitarian Immigration Law Clinic; Assistant Professor Mussa Idris, himself an asylee from the African nation of Eritrea, teaches anthropology at the university; Million Mekonnen is executive director of the North Carolina African Services Coalition; and Sharon Morrison works as a research fellow for the Center for New North Carolinians.
Associate Professor Aunchalee Palmquist, director of Elon University’s Program for Ethnographic Research and Community, moderated the panel.
Scavone discussed the legal definition of a refugee and the legal challenges facing many refugees and asylees. A refugee, she said, is a person from another country who has had their rights violated on one of five grounds: race, religion, nationality, political opinion or social group.
A person doesn’t have to be in the United States to apply to be a refugee. He or she is often still in a home country or a refugee camp. An asylee is a person who meets the definition of a refugee, but is physically in the United States.
Refugees can automatically bring their spouses and unmarried children to the United States, and depending on the circumstances, they may also be able to bring their parents or minor siblings. Scavone explained that it is still an uphill battle that can take years to reunite the family.
Mekennon’s organization works with refugees when they have arrived in the United States. ASC helps refugees and asylees become self sufficient by helping them with finding a job and home, and helping them learn English.
Morrison works with the Center for New North Carolinians, which not only helps resettle refugees but tries to identify the most effective way to help them.
Morrison spoke specifically about the Montagnards in Greensboro, of which she estimates there to be about 9,000, the largest concentration in the world outside of their native Vietnam. Montagnards helped the United States in the Vietnam War, but because of their location in the central highlands, were not informed of the war’s ending and continued to fight until they were brought to America.
“We need to learn from them and work from them,” Morrison said.
Idris shared his own experience as a refugee from Eritrea, a small country in Africa. He initially came to the United States to get his master’s degree from the University of Florida. When he went returned to Eritrea, he and his colleagues were persecuted for teaching students about human rights and social justice issues.
“Because our political views, we were persecuted, so that made me come back, in search of peace, in search of freedom,” said Idris, who received his citizenship in 2013. “My defining moment was when someone said that the importance of freedom is not to have it and keep it, but to expand it … I am a part of the refugee story and I am a part of the American story.”