Nestled in the Lackawanna River Valley of northeastern Pennsylvania, Scranton has historically been an attractive place for new immigrants thanks to its once vibrant industries. Known colloquially as the Electric City, Scranton fell into hard times following the Second World War, when it was robbed of its important anthracite coal mining and railroad industries. Since then, the city has been trying to reinvent and revitalize itself.
Today, this reinvention is occurring through the resettlement of refugees. Since 1970, the Catholic Social Services of the Diocese of Scranton (CSS) has helped provide new homes for thousands of refugees across greater Northeastern Pennsylvania. Under the guidance of Pope Francis, the Catholic Church has strongly advocated for a humane and effective response to the current global refugee crises. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which annually resettles approximately 30% of all refugees to the United States, has taken up this mission through the CSS.
Hailing from Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East, refugees in Scranton have formed new communities and created new lives far away from persecution. Bringing new ideas and skills from around the world, they have helped re-invent Scranton for the interconnected and globalized world.
Refugee integration has not, however, been seamless. Uncertain economic times and pervasive anti-refugee rhetoric across the country has led some to be suspicious of these new arrivals. As a result, CSS and Scranton community members have made a concerted effort to bring locals and newcomers together to ensure that refugees flourish in and benefit from their new city.
The Waiting Game
Resettlement is only one of the three durable solutions available to refugees registered with the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR). The other two solutions are integration into the country of asylum and voluntary repatriation to the country of origin. Of the 17.2 million UNHCR-mandated refugees worldwide (as of 2016), only 189,300 were resettled to a third country. During the past fiscal year, the United States was the top resettlement country in the world, accepting 84,995 refugees. This is the highest number accepted since 1999.
Before refugees can be resettled in the United States, they must undergo an extreme vetting process. This process includes multiple medical screenings, in-depth interviews, an intense background check, the collection of biographic data, and, finally, the issuing of a security clearance and identification documents.
The process is time consuming and onerous. Recently, I spoke with a number of families who had been resettled in Scranton over the last two months. Each was forced to wait at least two years, from the moment when they received news about their resettlement to actually boarding a plane bound for the Wilkes-Barre-Scranton International Airport.
Marc Ngongo is a case manager at CSS and a former refugee from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Along with his family, Marc lived for ten years in a refugee camp in Namibia. Three of those years were spent being vetted by the U.S. government for resettlement. Until he departed for the United States, Marc recalls traveling every six months to a larger city in Namibia for medical screenings required for his resettlement application. He also underwent multiple background interviews in the camp itself. Marc and his family arrived in the United States in 2015.
As Marc explains, in the final weeks before their departure, refugees must attend a pre-departure orientation. This meeting covers vital topics, in the client’s native language, like the importance of learning English, U.S. work culture and laws, travel procedures, and how to access emergency services, housing, and resettlement services.
Two years after his arrival, Marc is now helping other resettled refugees adapt to their new lives. His Swahili translation services are crucial to assisting other newly-arrived Congolese refugees. He also guides all resettled refugees, regardless of their country of origin, through the entire resettlement process, from arrival to adaptation in the Electric City.
Welcome to Scranton
Through CSS, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops covers all the costs associated with resettlement in Scranton, for a total period of three months, except the cost of the flight from the country of asylum to the United States. Resettled persons are responsible for paying back the cost of their flight, for which they receive a loan through the International Office of Migration (IOM). This loan can be paid in monthly installments and does not incur interest. It can take years to pay back this loan. A single mother who recently arrived in Scranton with her five children, for example, owes the IOM over ten thousand dollars.
Once an individual or family arrives at the local airport, they are immediately picked up by a case manager from CSS and taken to their apartment. The CSS case managers have established relationships with landlords throughout Scranton and ensure that apartments are safe, in good condition, and affordable, before clients arrive.
Within twenty-four hours of arrival, the case manager holds an orientation with the clients to review apartment safety, information about the travel loan, emergency services, and any other essential information.
CSS allocates $1,125 to each client upon arrival. Case managers initially use most of this money for rent and household necessities. Any leftover money is given directly to the clients via check, to use as they choose. This helps new arrivals get settled before they must start looking for a job, with the assistance of both CSS and the caseworker. Clients also receive food stamps and initial medical assistance through the state government’s Access Insurance Cards. They continue to receive governmental assistance for food and healthcare until their income is deemed high enough to support themselves.
CSS transports clients to all of their initial appointments. These include visits to doctors for physical examinations and vaccines, to the local hospital for blood work, to the social security office to obtain a social security card, to the DMV to obtain state ID, to the bank to open an account, to a four-day arrival orientation at CSS, to initial pharmacy visits, and to job interviews.
Case managers teach clients how to buy and use local bus passes, efficiently use food stamps, and enroll children in the local school district. They also visit clients monthly to check-in and see how they are adapting.
According to Marc, learning English is the most important task for newly arriving individuals. As English speakers, clients can better integrate and receive higher paying jobs. CSS provides daily ESL classes at its center, taught by volunteers. Indeed, CSS’s dedicated volunteers are an enormous help in easing the transition for newly arrived refugees.
While immigration and refugee resettlement have deeply divided the United States, many community partners have stepped up to help their new neighbors. This has been especially true after the Syrian civil war gained national attention.
In the fall of 2015, the University of Scranton, a Jesuit university, began a campaign called In Solidarity with Syria. As part of the campaign, students and faculty members from all departments wrote to their elected officials and local media outlets and hosted events and lectures on the topic of immigration and refugee resettlement, often times partnering with other Scranton businesses and community organizations.
The university also organized a refugee simulation on campus. The simulation allowed students, faculty, and staff to experience the conditions facing refugees, like having to carry heavy buckets of water and sharing extremely limited space in a tent. It provided participants with facts and figures about refugee life in camps and urban settings.
In partnership with both the University of Scranton and other local partners, CSS recently held its second annual World Refugee Day Celebration in Nay Aug Park. For the past two years, the event has brought the Scranton community and its new neighbors together to enjoy food and dance from the resettled communities. Through conversations across the dinner table, stories and histories are shared. The event is a truly joyful moment for those individuals who have newly arrived in Scranton, allowing them to see the scope of support from the community.
Thanks in part to these events, recently resettled refugees in Scranton have been largely sheltered from potential hatred. But, much more clearly needs to be done to confront this xenophobia.
Hope for the Future
With its endless appointments, interviews, orientations and meetings, the resettlement process can seem daunting, especially to those who have never been outside the confines of a refugee camp. But, for many refugees, the process is worth it.
Sylvain is a refugee from the DRC, who arrived in Scranton with his family in May. After spending twenty years in a refugee camp in Tanzania, he says the United States feels like a dream. He is most excited to learn English and receive his first paycheck from his newly acquired job. This will allow him to provide for his family in a way he never believed possible. While he cannot easily speak in English yet, he believes people in the United States have been welcoming and smiles when he says, “we are finally living!”