This upcoming week, we are celebrating Welcoming Week here in Anchorage as an official Welcoming City. As a community of family, neighbors and friends, there are many exciting events taking place to join. Welcoming Week gives all of us an opportunity to recognize and highlight the economic, cultural and social contributions that immigrants and refugees make to our communities and show support and solidarity with our brothers and sisters who have been displaced from their homes by war and persecution.
Can you imagine that life? Being forced from your home and country for your beliefs, your color, your ethnicity, your geographical location or even just because you're a person in the way of a battle? I find it difficult to imagine because it is so completely wrong. Yet it is happening all over the world. People are being displaced from their countries and their homes right now. The current estimate of forcibly displaced people worldwide is 68.5 million people — the highest levels of displacement on record. That means 1 of every 113 members of our human family has had to flee their home to a different place within their country or across a border.
Once a displaced person is pushed across a border into another country, they become a refugee. Officially, the United Nations determines whether they are eligible for refugee status, but basically, they must have a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group. Most likely, they cannot return home or are afraid to do so. Most refugees are in countries surrounding the country from which they fled. Sometimes they are allowed to officially resettle there, and sometimes they are not so they live in a state of flux.
To come to the U.S. as a refugee is very difficult and rigorous. To enter our country as a refugee is the most difficult way to come to the United States of America. Only about 1 percent of refugees worldwide are given the opportunity to resettle to a third country such as the U.S. or Australia. If they apply to the U.S. for resettlement and make it past the first application, an intensive screening process is initiated. This process includes interviews with the Department of Homeland Security, fingerprinting and security checks through the FBI and Department of Defense databases, as well as medical screenings and cultural orientation before they would be given the opportunity to come here. This process can take a minimum of 18 months, but typically it lasts years. Once in Anchorage, refugees immediately began searching for employment and receiving job training. They are generally very successful. Within a year, the vast majority are off public assistance and have become tax-paying members of our community.
Welcoming Week is a great opportunity to bring recognition to this challenging issue and to celebrate refugees who have joined us in Anchorage — as well as immigrants and asylum-seekers who have traveled their own rigorous, challenging paths to Alaska. There are so many productive and strong people who first arrived in Anchorage from other countries and now own businesses, send their children to schools, pay taxes, celebrate with us in faith communities and contribute to the social fabric of our community.
I urge you to reach out and welcome new members to our community, in particular those who have overcome extreme challenges to resettle in our country and our community. We are neighbors and friends, and we share a connection. Most people who live in Anchorage arrived here from somewhere else — only our Dena'ina community can probably claim true long-term roots. Settling in a new place is difficult and can feel uncomfortable. One of my favorite things about Anchorage, though, is our generosity of spirit and the welcome we offer to travelers and newcomers. So many of us have created new families and communities from scratch here in Anchorage, and we know the feeling of newly arriving.
That spirit is something to celebrate every day — and in particular during Welcoming Week. Thank you, Anchorage, for your welcome!
Lisa Aquino is the Executive Director of Catholic Social Services – Alaska, which houses the Refugee Assistance and Immigration Services program.