Aid Organization Eyes Asheville For Refugee Resettlement

Aid organization eyes Asheville for refugee resettlement

If plans move forward, the first household could come as early as next spring


ASHEVILLE – A global aid and humanitarian organization is exploring the possibility of making Western North Carolina a resettlement site for refugees.

Representatives from the International Rescue Committee met with residents at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation to discuss the feasibility of relocating about 150 people fleeing persecution in their home countries to the Asheville region.

If plans move forward, the first household could come as early as next spring, J.D. McCrary, executive director of the IRC office in Atlanta, told a crowd of more than 50 people Wednesday. Others would arrive over the ensuing 12 months, he said.

“We’re very interested in hearing what you have to say and the questions that you have,” McCrary said. “That’s our real reason for being here, exploring if the community is good for refugees. Are refugees good for the community? If both of those don’t line up, then we would probably continue looking for new sites elsewhere. It has to be a community that is welcoming.”

The IRC has been speaking with city and county officials, as well as others including the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, McCrary said.

On Wednesday, Buncombe County Board of Commissioners Chairman David Gantt said he had met briefly with the group. Mayor Esther Manheimer said she had not.

A nonprofit organization, the IRC responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises by helping people in need survive, recover, and gain control of their future, the agency says.

It provided $11.8 million in cash and asset transfers to more than 75,600 refugees and displaced households last year. In the United States, the agency helped resettle nearly 10,000 refugees in 2015.

The majority of refugees now being resettled domestically are Congolese, Bhutanese, Burmese, Afgani and Iraqi, although there are likely to be more Syrians in the near future, McCrary said.

Any resettlement in Asheville would likely follow national trends, he said.

The IRC will decide if Asheville can serve as a potential resettlement site early next month. It will then submit a proposal to the U.S. Department of State. The federal agency will confer with North Carolina officials on whether to approve the plan.

Funding for refugee services comes mainly from the federal government.

“I am happy to tell you that your community is very, very welcoming,” McCrary said.

Available, affordable housing might be the greatest hurdle to a resettlement, he said. There are jobs here. Some 1,700 new hotel rooms are coming in the next year and those hotels need workers. Housing, on the other hand, is more limited and expensive than expected, he said.

The key is to find sites that are safe and affordable with available housing, economic opportunities and public transportation, McCrary said. The IRC strives to provide refugees with furnished homes or apartments upon arrival. The goal is for households to gain economic self-sufficiency within four-six months.

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Residents during the meeting Wednesday discussed potential community partners such as local schools, Asheville–Buncombe Technical Community College, the Literacy Council of Buncombe County, the YWCA of Asheville and the YMCA of Western North Carolina.

Some worried how a local resettlement would impact Asheville’s already marginalized African-American and Hispanic communities. Others wondered if Asheville could meet the needs of a resettlement.

“I think culturally, this would be fabulous. I would love to see a diverse Asheville,” said Erin Sebelius, who is the director of the English for Speakers of Other Languages program at the Literacy Council. “What I worry about is the ability for these folks to find good jobs, housing and services.”

The Literacy Council already has a wait list of 70 people needing English language instruction, she said.

McCrary assured the crowd that the IRC does not want to further marginalize groups or detract services from locals in need.

“We want refugees that we assist in resettling to be strong members of the community and actually strengthen the community in this process,” he said.

The group WNC Refugee Challenge started working with the IRC several months ago. They assembled after the terrorist attack on Paris last year and organized Wednesday’s meeting.

There was all this ugly rhetoric and talk of closing borders, said founding member Joanna Bliss from Brevard. “I heard that and I thought we have to change this conversation.

“I think Asheville is a good example of a community open to a lot of different cultural influences, and it would be likely to welcome what refugees we can bring.”