I am frequently asked to give talks to area congregations about the work of Interfaith Action of Central Texas. When I do so, I almost always talk about our work with international refugees. Invariably, I see some confused looks on the faces of my audience.
It is clear to me that many people don’t understand what is meant by the term, “refugee.” Some immediately associate refugees with immigrants, particularly undocumented or “illegal” immigrants, and they seem upset or concerned. Others are simply confused:
“How do those people get here?”
“Where are they coming from?”
I try to answer their questions and concerns as directly, and simply, as possible. I tell them that no one chooses to become a refugee, that these are individuals who were forced from their homes by persecution and violence. Many fled out their back doors while their front doors were being kicked in.
I explain that refugees come from nearly every corner of the globe — particularly those regions torn apart by ethnic and religious warfare.
When addressing the question about how refugees arrive here in Austin, I always point out that only a tiny percentage of refugees around the world ever make it out of refugee camps, and those who do have had to prove they are worthy of being “officially sanctioned” refugees. These select few are brought to the U.S. and other nations by relief agencies and our own government.
I also inform people that refugees in the United States are expected to become self-sufficient in a matter of just a few months regardless of whatever trauma and disorientation they might have.
Few Austinites realize it, but in recent years our community has become a major resettlement site for international refugees. More than a thousand refugees are arriving in Central Texas every year. Austin has been chosen as a major resettlement site for one simple reason: the availability of entry-level jobs.
IACT runs a year-round school that teaches newly arrived refugees English and provides crucial cultural orientation lessons. We also help prepare their children for Austin public schools.
The good news about refugees is that the vast majority of them succeed in our country and become contributing citizens. They are very motivated individuals and very grateful for the opportunities and safety provided to them here.
Saturday Austin celebrates World Refugee Day, an international event that honors the successes of refugees around the world and informs the rest of us about the challenges all refugees face. In Austin, World Refugee Day will be celebrated at 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Bullock Texas State History Museum, 1800 N. Congress Ave. This free event will offer a wide variety of activities for the whole family.
The Austin Refugee Roundtable, which includes agencies, groups and individuals that serve refugees, and the museum will honor the journeys of refugees living in Austin, welcome them to our community and celebrate the rich cultural diversity that they bring.
During a naturalization ceremony, people who originally came to Texas as refugees will be sworn in as U.S. citizens. The ceremony will take place at noon in the Texas Spirit Theater of the museum.
The afternoon will be filled with music, food and fun. The main stage will feature music and dance by refugees and will culminate with interactive drumming. Ongoing activities include face painting and children’s crafts, and an educational area, where participants can learn about the refugee journey, their countries and their cultures.
The Austin Refugee Roundtable is comprised of agencies, community groups and individuals who serve refugees with the aim of making Austin a welcoming and supportive resettlement community.
For more information about the museum and attending this event, visit www.TheStoryofTexas.com.