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Keeping families, communities together key to refugees' success

Brandon Kiley

Dozens of Columbia residents and Columbia-based refugees were in attendance at the annual World Refugee Day Celebration in Columbia. The Refugee and Immigration Services of Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri hosted the events at the sixth annual celebration in Columbia, Saturday, June 21, 2014.

The World Refugee Day Coordinator for 2014, Hannah Lammers, said Columbia started the annual celebration six years ago.

"The mission for World Refugee day is to increase awareness," Lammers said. "It's a day to celebrate the determination and courage of our refugees while also educating Columbia natives about it."

The Refugee and Immigration Services (RIS) in Columbia aid nearly 150 new refugee cases on a yearly basis. According to RIS Job Developer and Community Outreach Coordinator Katie Freehling, the RIS is a re-settlement agency contracted through a voluntary agency within the United States Government.

Refugees don't get to decide where they end up once they come to the United States, according to Freehling. Freeling said the government works with the resettlement agencies across the nation to see who has the best capacity to support that particular refugee. There are different factors that come into play such as family ties, and if there is a certain demographic group in a particular city. For Columbia, the largest refugee populations come from Bosnia, Somalia and Iraq.

Ahmed Abdirahman is one of the more than 900 refugees in Columbia. Abdirahman was a doctor in Somalia before he came to the United States in February.

"I flew from Jordan to Paris to Miami to Chicago to New York City to Columbia," Abdirahman said.

Abdirahman's first contact with the Columbia RIS was when he stepped out of the plane in his new home.

"That's the initial contact," Freehling said. "We bring them home into the house or apartment that we have set up for them so they have a place to call home from the beginning."

"They found us an apartment to sleep in," Abdirahman said. "They grouped us together so we could afford an apartment… They have been very helpful."

From there, the RIS case manager and job developers work with the refugee to become more self-sufficient. They help the refugees apply for social security cards, search for jobs, and educate the refugees on cultural and community differences in the United States compared to where they are from.

"They helped me find a job," Abdirahman said. "They showed me how to get a driver's license at the DMV. Anything you need."

One difficult part about the journey for many refugees is not having their families with them once they arrive in the United States. Fisseh is a refugee that has been in America for three and a half years. He said it's difficult for him to support himself while also supporting his family overseas.

"It is difficult," Fisseh said. "I have to take care of my family, and myself. My time is not enough."

The RIS attempts to work with immigration services whenever possible to re-unite families in the United States. Freehling said the organization has been successful in bringing some families back together over the years.

"We have some really neat stories of people that have been separated from their families and didn't know if they were alive or not," Freehling said. "Through the work of many individuals and agencies, we were able to find out that they were indeed alive, and through a very long and arduous process, the families were finally re-united. There are stories like that that happen every year."

Fisseha hopes that he will be one of those success stories. "My plan, my hope, is that my family will come to the United States," Fisseha said. "And then I will go to school."

Fisseha is not alone. Many refugees in Columbia have aspirations to go to school. Abdirahman is one of them, although his story is a bit different.

"I was a doctor in my country," Abdirahman said. "I can't serve as a doctor in the United States until I am certified. I am starting to take exams so I can get certified and apply for residency."

Abdirahman said the process is more than meets the eye. For him to take the exams, to apply for schools and to fly to the interviews requires money. He hopes that he will be finished with the process within the next year.

Columbia may not be the permanent home for Abdirahman if he decides to go to school elsewhere, but he's content for now.

"It was very cold when we came, but it's cozy," Abdirahman said. "I like it."

Brandon Kiley is a student newscaster.
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