AFSC's Migwe Kimemia (left) welcomes Human Relations Council Executive Director Tom Wahlrab to a public event addressing housing issues for refugees in Dayton.Photo: AFSC / Wambui Migwe
They witness atrocities most of us cannot imagine. They make perilous journeys, often alone, through countries where violence is ubiquitous and food is scarce. They make their way to refugee camps. They receive the good news that they will be resettled in the United States, and arrive, ready to embrace a new life.
And then they meet their next set of obstacles:
Hate mail from strangers. Dilapidated housing arrangements often in violent and drug-ridden urban ghettos. Language barriers that make it hard to find employment or access government services. Ratios of one ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher to 100 students in underfunded public schools. Thousands of dollars in resettlement debt coming due four to eight months after arrival. One family of nine arrived owing $12,000 in airfare for their flight to the US from the refugee camp. Impediments to starting new businesses. The list goes on.
Dayton, Ohio, has decided to be different.
In an unanimous vote in early October, the Dayton City Commission passed a resolution known as the “Welcome Dayton Plan.” Recognizing that immigrants have the potential to breathe new life into struggling cities, Dayton is intentionally welcoming immigrants –with a plan of action that will make the city friendly to newcomers in a whole host of ways.
The plan creates a “Global Marketplace” business district and provides for identification cards that refugees can use to obtain business licenses. It addresses exploitation by landlords. Refugees forced to sign leases without benefit of translation upon arrival often have found themselves paying two-thirds of their public benefit for substandard housing. It removes language barriers. And it includes immigrants in community boards, encouraging their civic participation and giving them a voice in city governance. Implementation is expected to be put in place in the coming months.
Staffers from AFSC ‘s Dayton Refugee Justice Program campaigned hard for the resolution, speaking before the commission, sharing examples of hate mail sent to refugees from as far away as Cleveland and Cincinnati, and serving on the task force that drafted the plan. In fact, AFSC’s innovative soccer tournaments, launched last year to build community among refugees from different countries, provided the model for a city-wide soccer tournament included in “Welcome Dayton.”
For three years, AFSC’s program has given refugees from different countries, ethnicities and religions a safe space in which to come together, overcome their fears, and support one another. The inadequacy of housing, education, and services for refugees has long been obvious. So too has the potential for these newcomers to stabilize neighborhoods, launch microenterprises and revitalize their communities.
“These are strong people. Once they come here, they just want to make it,” says Migwe Kimemia, program director. The city of Dayton has just made that easier.