What do Burlington, Vermont; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; and Erie, Pennsylvania have in common? Despite their different locations and economic histories and political orientations, all three have been consciously incorporating and welcoming refugees into their towns for decades. They have played this role starting with the waves of refugees to the United States from Vietnam that began in the 1970s, followed by those from Armenia, Russia, Ukraine, Bosnia, Kosovo, Sudan, Nepal, Burma, Bhutan, Iraq, Congo, Somalia, Syria, and more. Their record is worth noting, at a moment when the political discussion about refugees has become so polarized and bitter.
Through American history, ethnic change has always brought some disruption. That is why it has been striking to hear residents of these three towns generally describe the impact of refugees on their communities in similar and positive terms. We’ve repeatedly heard language like “we need each other” describing the economic bargain of the refugees working in the slaughterhouses in Sioux Falls. Or “we are all richer for it” about the diversity of food, arts, languages, customs, and culture brought to Burlington. Or “we embrace the refugees” on how refugees contribute to rebuilding and enriching the shrunken population of rustbelt Erie. The language is unequivocating and strong.
Between arrival—uprooted, usually fleeing hardship or violence, frequently without financial or cultural connections—and a sustainable or thriving existence lie many intermediate steps. All the early ones require help, of the kind organizations in these communities have learned how to provide. The first are as basic as you would imagine: housing and furniture, clothes, food, safety introductions, medical care, and cash. The next steps follow quickly with child care and school, English classes, job searches, training, communications, transportation, banking, cultural introductions, shopping, and on and on.