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Refugee Agency Exec Reflects on 40 Years of Service

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For new refugees, the first year in the U.S. is the hardest, but most are able to build better lives. (Int'l. Rescue Committee)
For new refugees, the first year in the U.S. is the hardest, but most are able to build better lives. (Int'l. Rescue Committee)
December 21, 2015

SEATTLE – A Washington man is observing the nation's immigration debate from the unique perspective of someone who has helped refugees resettle in the U.S. for almost 40 years.

Bob Johnson retires next month as executive director of the International Rescue Committee's Seattle office.

In his years of service, Johnson has seen several waves of anti-immigrant rhetoric. He says his most vivid memories aren't about the controversies, but about the individuals who have become Americans, and come back to thank him.

"I think people really don't see the achievements,” he states. “They only see the beginnings, when people are vulnerable and floundering, and maybe don't speak English yet.

“The first year is very tough – all refugees start, in general, fairly poor. But then they work their way up and after a few years, they're up and going."

There are IRC offices in 22 states, and Johnson notes some have received threats about their resettlement programs. But in Washington, he says 99 percent of the calls have been from people who want to know how they can help.

He cites the IRC's long history of mentoring refugees, which began in the 1930s with people fleeing Nazi Germany.

He says Washington was part of a major resettlement campaign after the evacuation of Saigon in the Vietnam War.

"In general, Washington state's been a very good state for refugees, and has been since 1975, when then-Republican Gov. Dan Evans brought refugees from Camp Pendleton in California to Washington state, and made a very strong statement about why we needed to do that," he recalls.

Johnson adds Washington is one of only a handful of states that help fund resettlement efforts.

He describes today's immigration debate as full of misinformation that fuels mistrust. But he also sees the potential for changing some minds.

"You know, there'll always be those that are against any form of immigration and anyone looking different coming to the country,” he says. “But I think the majority will eventually understand a little bit more about the process, and it may be a good opportunity to educate people that it's not as scary as they might have thought to begin with."

Even in retirement, Johnson says he will still volunteer to help new arrivals to the Northwest.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - WA