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Working With Refugees - 2002-06-14


English Feature # 7-36408 Broadcast June 17, 2002

Ten non-governmental agencies in the United States are under contract with the State Department to resettle refugees admitted to this country. Today on New American Voices we talk with Sanja Mehmedinovic, herself a refugee from Bosnia, who is a case manager with one of these agencies.

“I find my job very rewarding, because now I am in the position to help people like myself. I know their needs, I know the story from the other side, per se, because I went through all that process, I know how hard it is for them and how determined they are to come here and find a better life, and how much they appreciate coming here and having the opportunity for a normal life and for a future for their children.”

Sanja Mehmedinovic works for the Refugee and Migration Services of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. It is the largest resettlement agency in the U.S., dealing with 30 percent of the refugees coming into the country. Mrs. Mehmedinovic is one of the people processing these cases – close to 20,000 a year.

“Last year I had in my hands the biographies of 182 different ethnic groups from all over the world, who are speaking 250 languages. So it’s really the opportunity even to learn about these different cultures and peoples, and help them as well to find communities where they will be welcome, and volunteers who will help them so that they will have a better start than I did.”

Sanja Mehmedinovic came to the United States with her thirteen-year-old son and writer husband six years ago, fleeing war and deprivation in Bosnia. The family was first resettled in Phoenix, Arizona, where there were few volunteers available to introduce them to the myriad details of everyday life in America. They moved to Washington, D.C. and worked in a variety of menial jobs until they learned English and were able to move into more professional work. Remembering her own recent experience, Sanja Mehmedinovic says that although the beginnings may be tough, refugees should look to the future.

“Basically they can expect that they have a chance. That makes the difference. And they have hope. If they work hard, if they learn about their new country, if they try to adjust, learn the language, which is all very hard, they have a chance, they really do.”

Mrs. Mehmedinovic says it is hard to say which refugees will have an easier time adjusting to their new life.

“I have an opportunity to work with people who are highly educated – some of the clients and refugees that I’ve been working with, their cases were ministers in their countries, were academics. But I’ve also been working with people who never saw electricity in their lives. Tribal people. And there is no rule, I can tell you. I think it’s personal determination. The motive, the hope, and determination to succeed.”

Mrs. Mehmedinovic says that this year the refugee resettlement picture has been somewhat complicated by the impact of the terrorist attacks of September 11th. Despite the attacks, six weeks after September 11th President Bush set the ceiling for refugee admissions for the year 2002 at 70,000, the same level as last year. However, the processing of refugees before they enter the United States is taking much longer because of new security procedures. As of now, considerably fewer refugees have arrived than last year at this time. But they are still coming in.

“Most of the refugees are from Africa. We have also refugees from former Soviet Union, religious minorities from the former Soviet Union are allowed to apply and come in as refugees, and we have still a lot of people of Jewish background, evangelicals, Pentecostals, Catholics, and other minorities. And also from Balkans, we still have refugees from Bosnia, from Croatia. We have Cuban refugees still coming. And then we have Vietnamese refugees still and a lot of small groups or individual cases of people who are fighting for democracy in different parts of the world and are accepted for resettlement because their lives were, you know, jeopardized because of their engagement or their background.”

The wide variety of backgrounds of the people coming into the United States as refugees is reflected in miniature in the staff of refugee resettlement agencies – at least the one in which Sanja Mehmedinovic works.

“The Migration and Refugee services have about 55 employees, and we have 42 languages in our office. So people from all backgrounds from different countries. In my office where I’m working in refugee processing, we have Laotian, Vietnamese, Sierra Leonean, Sudanese, Ethiopian, Bosnian, Puerto Rican, Romanian… We are working together in harmony, we have an understanding and maybe a better appreciation for what we are doing, and for our friendship.”

Next week in this program an immigrant from India talks about a book he has written that speaks to the harmony of diverse peoples – “A Sufi’s Ruminations on One World Under God.”

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