Compass: Alaska, U.S. remain haven for refugees

At Thanksgiving we honor the Pilgrims who fled persecution in their home country for a new land of freedom, and celebrate the hospitality they received from the Native people after arriving. On Thanksgiving Day, refugee families in Anchorage will experience this American tradition by joining in Thanksgiving gatherings throughout the city; and giving thanks for their new lives in America.

In many ways, refugees arriving in America from around the world reflect the story of the original Pilgrims that landed at Plymouth Rock. The refugees are also fleeing persecution and seeking a life of freedom and safety in our country. The United States has historically maintained a policy of admitting refugees -- individuals who had to flee their countries of origin due to the tragedies of persecution and war -- into this country. After World War II, the United States recognized and solidified its dedication to protecting the vulnerable and giving sanctuary to those persecuted and oppressed.

Catholic Social Services is part of a network that resettles refugees from every region of the world and includes torture survivors, individuals seeking asylum and victims of sexual and gender-based violence. Some refugees have lived in camps for decades and been deprived of basic human rights. Refugees are distinct from other immigrant groups in that they come here by presidential invitation and under established federal appropriations. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is one of 10 voluntary placement and resettlement agencies in the nation making decisions about where refugees will be resettled. Annually, about 65,000 refugees are resettled in the United States with about 120 coming to Alaska.

Claude and Kayissan, refugees that our Refugee Assistance & Immigration Services program resettled in Anchorage, will never forget the family meeting where their loved ones urged them to take their kids and leave Togo -- the only home they had ever known.

Claude had been a librarian for over 20 years in Lome, Togo in Africa -- his and Kayissan's home. Along with being a librarian he was one of five district leaders in the Union Forces for Change political party. UFC was in opposition to the ruling government, which was known for horrific human rights abuses. Claude and Kayissan acknowledge that Lome has been a violent place from their very first memories, with kidnappings and assaults being common occurrences. That is precisely why Claude thought it was important to join the UFC and try to change his community, so that people need not live their lives in fear.

As Claude explains, "It was a long and difficult journey to Anchorage. We spent seven years waiting for resettlement, living in very harsh conditions in Bamako, Mali, after we fled our home in Lome. Now we have freedom -- freedom is very nice, no one can hunt you, you are not an animal to shoot for what you think, what you say. I feel like a bird out of his cage."

The RAIS program, Alaska's only refugee resettlement program, assisted 347 clients last year; 79 percent of all eligible refugees were employed and 94 percent of these have successfully retained their employment. Like the Pilgrims, refugees arriving in America today must begin their lives anew.

Thanksgiving is a time to remember that when given an opportunity to do so, refugees, including those coming to Alaska, contribute in significant ways to making a community economically vibrant and ethnically diverse.

Refugees experienced trauma and violence in their home countries and by accepting them into the United States we are literally saving their lives and strengthening our communities.

The chair of the Refugee Council USA, states it well, "Many, if not most of us, trace some part of our ancestry to refugees, and America's lead role in refugee resettlement honors that heritage."

Thanksgiving is the perfect holiday for Americans to reflect on the special role our country plays in providing safe haven to the persecuted of the world.

Susan Bomalaski is executive director of Catholic Social Services Alaska.