Welcoming Their New Neighbors to Salem

Salem For Refugees

Salem For Refugees has helped LCS Northwest establish a refugee resettlement program in Salem. Pictured (from left to right) are: Anya Holcomb, co-director of Salem For Refugees; Stefani Bloch, Refugee Projects Program Manager; Salah Ansary, Senior District Director; and Allie West, Salem Resettlement Services Coordinator. All but Holcomb work for LCS Northwest.

Being neighborly took on a new meaning last year in Salem. People started welcoming refugees to Oregon’s capital city.

Salem For Refugees, a volunteer organization launched in 2016, has become a key player in resettling refugees in the community. The group works with resettlement agencies Lutheran Community Services Northwest and Catholic Charities along with other organizations to welcome new refugees. In less than two years, Salem has welcomed 160 refugees from nine different countries.

At the heart of Salem For Refugees is embracing the ideal of “welcoming our new neighbors.”  There are approximately 650 people from various backgrounds on the Salem for Refugees email list, and many are eager to make cross-cultural friends.

“The community needs to take ownership of this,” said Anya Holcomb, who is co-director of Salem For Refugees with her husband Doug. “These are folks who are becoming part of our community. We want to treat them like we would like to be treated if we were in the same situation.”

Salem For Refugees has set up a system to help refugee families be self-sufficient. Before a refugee family or individual arrives, they are assigned to a six- to eight-member “mentor team” that helps refugees adjust to our culture. Additionally, Salem for Refugees has 10 resource teams that work in specific areas: employment, English, education, healthcare, housing, meals, transportation, legal, technology and interpretive services.

As an example, the healthcare team works to make sure all refugees receive required health screenings when they arrive. Team members created a process where all refugee health screenings could take place at a local clinic, eliminating the need to travel to Portland.

“Their work with refugees is very comprehensive and thorough,” said Salah Ansary, LCS Senior District Director, who leads our resettlement efforts. “Their resources are vast for a community of this size. They are developing a model that others could replicate.” The Salem For Refugees model is getting noticed, as Barbara Day, the Department of State domestic resettlement director, was scheduled to visit Salem Monday, Dec. 4.

Assistance from Salem For Refugees goes beyond self-sufficiency. Two families resettled by LCS Northwest spent their first few weeks here staying in private homes. The hosts declined any expense reimbursement. Mentors have also hosted meals, organized fun outings, and raised money for summer camp along with other activities for kids. Promoting this type of socializing is extremely important as it contributes to a sense of welcome.

Improvements to Salem For Refugees are coming. They’re planning to add a childcare resource team and possibly a jobs coach to each mentor team. A future goal is to improve housing stability by subsidizing housing costs for newly-arrived families for the first six to 12 months. That way refugees can focus on English and job skills development and worry less about rent.

Ansary said jobs are a key piece to any successful refugee resettlement model. The Salem group is trying an innovative approach by teaming with Sparrow Furniture. Three refugees have been hired at this social business and are learning the trade of rehabilitating used furniture while receiving English lessons during the work day. Sparrow Furniture also wants to bring some of the refugees’ cultures into product design elements.

The larger Salem For Refugees group meets on the first Monday of every month for a “Welcoming Our New Neighbors Meeting.” In the first year, the group raised more than $17,000 for emergency financial assistance. Over the next year, resettlement agencies plan to bring about 100 new refugees to Salem

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