World Relief’s challenges in refugee resettlement shaped by economy

That knowledge is an asset which also gives him pause as the new director of World Relief’s office in the city.

World Relief is a Christian aid organization that was founded as a relief organization aimed at helping Europe rebuild in the aftermath of World War II. It is one of 10 agencies contracted by the State Department to resettle refugees, bringing nearly 6,000 of them to the U.S. next year.

The sagging local economy of Fort Wayne makes the challenge for Keplar, his staff and volunteers all the more daunting. It also provides a small example of challenges facing aid agencies around the nation.

A city anchored in the auto industry in general and General Motors in particular, Fort Wayne’s unemployment rate, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, is just under 10 percent. Most of the job losses in the last year have been in the manufacturing and construction industries, mirroring national trends.

“The current economy is a two-sided sword. On one hand, it makes it difficult to find employment for many refugees,” he said, echoing comments made during the fundraiser about a local refugee who travels daily 80 miles one-way to work at a meat packing plant.

“They’re willing to do that because that is the only way many of them are able to provide for their families. Another way the economy hurts us is that if the jobs are here locally they’re poor jobs or poor-paying jobs.”

The flip side is an enlarged volunteer base fueled by unemployed workers.

“The economy helps in some regard because there are a number of people who have come forward and said that while they’re collecting unemployment they would like to do something that makes a difference.”

The beneficiaries will be people like James Schwe. Schwe is now a World Relief case worker who last spring resettled to Fort Wayne with the help of active Catholic Charities groups in the area. Schwe had been in a Thai refugee camp for 20 years after fleeing violence and political instability in neighboring Burma (today referred to as Myanmar).

Schwe did not speak at length about his refugee experiences, rather focusing on adjusting to everyday aspects of American life such as following a bus route to get to work and learning to drive.

“I’m looking forward to giving back to the community that has given me so much already,” said Schwe, who speaks five languages and has worked locally as a translator.

World Relief has a local fundraising goal of $60,000 by the start of fiscal 2010 on Oct. 1.

“The assets and the challenges go hand-in-hand,” Keplar said. “The people of Fort Wayne have compassion for those in need. The challenge is channeling that compassion into ways that will effectively help the refugees. Our goal is to find the means for those who are interested in volunteering to be mobilized to actually volunteer.”

The need for those volunteers will grow quickly in the coming months.

“Because I know the churches and know the network of people here, I anticipate we’ll be able to mobilize quickly,” Keplar said. “We already have five refugees and 30 to 35 more in the pipeline awaiting travel arrangements. We’re going to have some substantial needs pretty quick.”

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